When Yogurt Lab founders Andrea and Aaron Switz decided to venture deeper into the restaurant business, the smartest decision they made was recruiting chef Tim Scott.
Their Agra Culture Kitchen & Press began, vaguely, as a salad concept. Scott, after nearly 20 years as a galvanizing culinary force for the mass-market dining audience at Dayton’s/Marshall Field’s/Macy’s — could handle that assignment in his sleep.
Which explains why Scott leapt beyond mere mixed greens and into a format that coalesced around incorporating quickly cooked beef, poultry and seafood into a wide range of attractive, flavor-packed menu items, all prepared to order in roughly five minutes and following organic and sustainable dictates.
Welcome to the spa circuit, minus its joyless doctrinaire attitude and upper-tax-bracket price tag. And, unlike the vast majority of counter-service operations, Scott’s light-touch cooking frequently displays nuanced yet discernible layers of flavor. Try finding either at Panera or Au Bon Pain.
“The perception is that healthy food is bland and boring,” said Scott. “That’s not what we want to be.”
Yes, there are salads, plenty of them. Here’s one example, a play on a traditional Asian Napa cabbage salad. The star of the show is juicy scallops, thinly sliced and marinated in olive oil, lemon zest and parsley before being seared to a caramelized goodness with garlic and chile undertones.
While the scallops are on the stove, the kitchen crew tosses together cabbage, peapods, edamame and peppers in an admirably restrained amount of tangy roasted pineapple vinaigrette. After adding the scallops, out comes a garnish of crispy shoestring-cut fried potatoes and a sprinkle of black sesame seeds.
The appealing results manage to address a host of salad superlatives. Ditto a Niçoise-like option, heaped with slices of plush, barely seared tuna and dressed in a thick, lively, herb-packed vinaigrette. Sushi roll standards are cleverly reordered into another salad that calls upon that same tuna, and Sriracha-laced chicken isn’t shy about its spirited bite, which is nicely complemented by peppery radishes and tangy blue cheese. The grab-and-go deli salad isn’t remotely in the same league.
Scott caters to the salad-weary with a three-part mix-and-match grid that steers clear of arugula and pea pods. The crowd-pleasing selection is dizzying, and the half-dozen iterations I sampled more than met my home meal replacement needs.
Diners start by choosing a sane (4-oz.) portion of a quick-seared or -sautéed protein (tofu, shrimp, chicken, salmon, beef, those tantalizing scallops, all $4 to $7) and one of eight house-made condiments, including a tomato jam with pops of jalapeño and umami-boosting fish sauce, a cool yogurt-cucumber-dill tzatziki and a tomato-roasted red pepper sauce with hints of smoky paprika.
Rounding out the meal are more than a dozen side dishes, all generously portioned and value-priced at $3.50 a pop. Among the standouts are chewy charred broccolini jazzed with garlic and sesame, a virtuous applesauce and harissa-brushed roasted yams. Even basic, unpretentious grains — quinoa, brown rice — are treated with the respect they so rarely receive, particularly in quick-service surroundings.
But there are some clear losers, too: a drab lentil salad that could have come from the deli of a late-1970s food co-op, a trio of timidly flavored deviled eggs and a dull vegetable hash.
A pair of soups are noteworthy for their unadulterated, invigorating flavors. Sandwiches (built using par-baked loaves from top-flight La Brea Bakery and Canyon Bakehouse) include an almost-club that’s alive with sweet basil and punchy aioli. I can’t get enough of the towering chicken salad, the juicy meat coated in a zesty curry aoili and each bite boosted by crunchy roasted cauliflower and the sweet-tart kick of apples and currants.
Breakfast also demonstrates that speed, quality and creativity don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals. A handful of earnest cereals — including my favorite, a locally made flaxseed-almond-raisin muesli — are prepared with care by the kitchen.
Along with grapefruit — its puckery juiciness enriched with rosemary and dried chiles — my new preferred day-starter is a sandwich layered with a tenderly fried egg, quality prosciutto, chunks of freshly shaved Parmesan and a smear of a robust basil pesto fortified with toasted walnuts and blanched kale.
Count me a fan of the bacon-egg-arugula rendition, too, a far cry from what the Starbucks and Caribous of the world have the temerity to refer to as a breakfast sandwich. Even the bread-free version, which places a runny egg over wilted kale and spinach, is a winner, and that’s from someone whose metabolism requires a significant morning carb jolt.
Still, not everything works. Scrambled eggs, shrewdly embellished, were dry and discolored. The wheat flour-free pastries make a valiant attempt at edibility, earning full marks for eye appeal and flavor, yet they can’t shake the grainy texture that plagues so many gluten-free baked goods. For all the attention paid to scratch cooking, dishes were occasionally, even woefully, underseasoned.
May I take your order?
Unlike the Yogurt Lab, Agra Culture’s ordering process cannot be described as immediately intuitive. For a counter-service setup, this is a setback.
Multiple registers, serving different and inadequately labeled functions, contribute to the confusion. The menu itself is problematic, on several levels. Two thumbs up for the enthusiastic substitutions-welcome policy, but it does contribute another layer to a menu already jammed with moving parts. Another challenge? The menu is spread across a tough-to-read bank of flat-panel screens that require some serious neck-craning. (My advice: Seek out a printed version, a godsend even for those who have to squint through the small type.)
No complaints with timing; I never waited more than seven minutes for anything, a remarkable track record given the food’s admirable freshness quotient. While I encountered more than a few ordering mishaps — greenhorn inexperience, perhaps? — the staff’s collective can-do enthusiasm frequently covered the blunders.
The first outlet opened in Uptown in late May, and a second, in the 50th and France commercial district, followed last month. The two locations share similar, vaguely Restoration Hardware-esque design elements and Target-like levels of branding gung-ho, and each have their pluses and minuses.
In Uptown, the sidewalk tables offer premium prime people-watching possibilities, a bonus since anyone spending more than 10 minutes inside the inadequately vented interior will likely emerge smelling of eau de stove. The 50th-and-France dining room is sunnier, if more acoustically harsh. There’s a roomy patio, although its tame setting offers none of Uptown’s sizzle.
Bottom line: When the I-don’t-feel-like-cooking impulse hits, would I invest in a crosstown trek for Agra Culture? Maybe.
But I’d definitely become a regular if one were to conveniently materialize in my neighborhood. I certainly won’t be surprised if that happens. Given the Yogurt Lab’s track record — 10 locations in its first three years — a similarly rocket-like growth rate for Agra Culture doesn’t seem to be the least bit far-fetched.
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