The ketchup bottle spoke volumes.
Not that there's anything wrong with Heinz, but serving a product laced with the much-maligned high-fructose corn syrup tends to undercut the credibility of a restaurant that wraps itself around words like "sustainable" and "organic" and "eco-gastronomy."
Buzzwords -- and you can toss "vegan" and "gluten-free" into the pile -- are big at Cafe Agri. Thank goodness. The Twin Cities metro area doesn't have enough restaurants paying attention to these small-but-significant segments of the dining-out populace. The restaurant is an earnest, well-meaning effort. Could it be better? Sure. Is it a good start? Absolutely.
Chef Derek Deker -- he replaced Dan Alvin, who opened the restaurant last summer -- faces the challenge of a vegetable-centric menu in Minnesota's endless winter by embracing the cellar-friendly beet, roasting them for a lively salad of brightly flavored greens and pungent blue cheese, enlisting them to punch up a polenta-mushroom dish and stuffing them with the menu's sole animal protein, tantalizingly smoked Wisconsin-raised trout. Another salad -- a blend of arugula and spinach so garden-fresh you want to get your own personal stash -- puts tender black-eyed peas in the spotlight.
Most of my visits started with thin-sliced yams, baked into chips and served with a creamy but bland guacamole. Rare is the time when this sodium-sensitive diner finds himself reaching for the salt shaker, but not at Cafe Agri, where most dishes would benefit enormously from a few dashes.
On the winter menu
There's an occasional tone-deafness when it comes to seasonality. The menu's biggest gaffe is a trio of tomatoes stuffed with squeaky-fresh mozzarella and garnished with basil and quick flashes of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It's a combination of near-universal appeal, but in February? Using Roma tomatoes? Even when they're in season -- and they're so not right now -- Romas are almost devoid of flavor. This dish was a no-brainer in September, when tomatoes were at their peak, but it's downright depressing during a snowstorm.
That said, Deker can have a way with vegetables, steering his efforts toward the comfort-minded end of the cooking spectrum. One night he was treating broccoli with the respect usually afforded a dry-aged porterhouse, steaming it to perfection, dressing it in a sweet-hot curry sauce and serving it over tender brown rice; the results were so fresh, so vivid, they made me forget about the subzero winds howling outside. Same with the vibrant soups. Oh, and the word "tofu" usually has me stifling a yawn, but at Agri, it gets hints of maple before being paired with a winning blend of wild rice, apricots, crunchy hazelnuts and tangy zaps of apricot.
There are a few gluten-free pastas -- brown-rice penne done up primavera-style, ricotta-filled rice-flour ravioli finished with a lifeless pureed butternut squash -- but they seem like tepid stand-ins for the real thing (don't get me started on the grim brown rice-sunflower seed "burger"; as a genre, veggie burgers can be so much better than this).
Ditto dessert. As someone who can't imagine a life without wheat flour (or, for that matter, eggs and butter), I found myself grimacing at most of Agri's sweets. Lord knows they're trying -- and any gluten-sensitive brownie, cookie or cake lover can appreciate the effort -- but the results were often somehow simultaneously gluey and grainy, the flavor profiles off-kilter and glaringly sweet. I've been more impressed by the desserts at Cooqi, Madwoman Foods and BitterSweet, the Twin Cities' gluten-free bakery trifecta.
How far do we go?
At what point does a person cry "uncle"? I may have crossed that line at brunch, trying my darndest to find favor with the disturbingly pale, chalky-yet-spongy gluten-free pancakes and the cinnamon-raisin French toast so hard it could have picked up part-time work as a shingle. It got me wondering: If dietary restrictions keep you from eating the real thing, will a sort-of facsimile do? Or do you bid farewell to all things wheat, stick with fabulous oat-date-sunflower seed granola, the hearty scrambled egg platters and the herb-packed beet-leek hash and call it a day?
Over the past decade, the cramped space has played host to more delis and bakeries than I can count, but Cafe Agri, with its avocado-tinted walls, mismatched furniture and dim lighting, is really the first one to make it work as a dining room. The restaurant occupies a classic streetcar-corner storefront, with large windows on two sides bisected by a door. Snowy February nights transform the scene into an Edward Hopper canvas, at least a little around the edges; once you are inside, the small-scaleness of the place -- a rarity in our bigger-is-better dining scene -- radiates a comforting coziness.
Cafe Agri's shining star is its wine program. Not only is it a platform for a host of small-producer labels that emphasize organic and/or biodynamic production, but it holds prices to mere-mortal levels on more than three dozen choices, with bottles at $20 and glasses at $5; another 30-plus bottles are under $30. How great is that?
There's a sweet little beer collection, as well, including a few gluten-free choices. It's a nice touch. An even nicer one would be a few bottles of Annie's Naturals organic ketchup.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757