Cafe offers uncommon value

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2008 - 9:21 AM

Common Roots Cafe is inexpensive and green -- food's great, too.

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On a cold winter afternoon one of the soups that the Common Roots Cafe serves is chicken and wild rice soup with potatoes, basil, sweet potatoes, Minnesota wild rice, tomatoes, local free-range chicken, caramelized shallots and Wisconsin crimini mushrooms.

Photo: Steve Rice, Star Tribune

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Here's what I admire most about Common Roots Cafe.

It's how the south Minneapolis restaurant makes a valiant effort to leave as dainty a carbon footprint as possible, yet does so without piously wrapping itself in some kind of hemp shroud. Locavore-to-the-max mentality, yes. Pounding that do-gooder message into its customers' brains with the heel of a well-worn Birkenstock sandal, no.

Not that the restaurant doesn't give itself an occasional back-pat. A few discreetly placed green-is-good signs let diners know that, for example, nearly 18,000 pounds of kitchen and dining room waste have been composted rather than dumped in a landfill since the restaurant's doors opened last summer, and that takeout containers are made from a compostable material. "For us, 'local' is not just a buzzword," one poster intones. "It means we are doing business by keeping dollars in our community, lessening environmental impact and making food that tastes good."

Fair enough. It's not as if owner Danny Schwartzman isn't walking his talk; heck, the guy is practically sprinting a four-minute mile. Besides, it's all true, especially that last part about the food. It does taste good. And that's what really speaks volumes.

Starting with bagels. Minnesotans accustomed to the pale, puffy frauds that pass for bagels in this region will not recognize the amber-tinted, so-chewy-you're-getting-an-aerobic-workout beauties that baker Megan Johnson and her team so skillfully produce. They begin with Minnesota-produced flour and honey (and a bit of malt powder from Wisconsin), hand-form them with obvious care, top them with poppy seeds, sesame seeds or bits of onion and finish them on a thin, fragrant layer of cornmeal. Finally, a bagel Minnesota can be proud of!

Kitchen manager Phil Werst does those bagels proud by pairing them with an exceptionally well-chosen roster of toppings, particularly a silky smoked Atlantic salmon and a luscious and teasingly tangy Wisconsin-made cream cheese, served plain or blended with a bevy of complementary ingredients.

But this is far more than a bagel shop. Relying upon the local larder for seasonal menus has become second nature to many top Twin Cities restaurants, but with depressingly few exceptions that skill set has not translated to moderately priced, counter-service setups. Nothing that Werst is doing is particularly complicated, but he's obviously found a way to consistently buy farm-fresh ingredients and then put them to their best advantage without charging big bucks for the effort.

Take the small selection of light-and-bright deli salads. A heady pesto clung to bow-tie pasta, artichokes and tender chunks of chicken that actually tasted like chicken. Roasted beets lent their rich color to orzo, which was tossed with tasty spinach and pungent Minnesota-made blue cheese. Boring old potato salad got a new lease on life with chickpeas and curry. I loved the zesty peanut sauce that put a kick into a chard-roasted yams combo, and the last time I was so impressed with a wild rice salad -- accented with sweet cranberries and roasted onions, crunchy cashews and a hint of Dijon mustard -- I was eating at the Locavore Mother Ship, Lucia's Restaurant.

Werst never forgets that he's feeding vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters, cooking a little something for everyone. This is particularly evident among his seemingly limitless soup roster. Sandwiches, some grilled, others served cold, all made using fine house-baked breads, are similarly satisfying.

After 5 p.m., the kitchen turns its attention to two or three dinner entrees, and they're great. Nothing fancy, just honest, imaginative cooking at reasonable prices. It could be a big square of lasagna, with lots of ricotta layered between yams, parsnips and celery root and splashed with a punchy tomato sauce (a steal at $7.50) or a wide bowl of lightly delicate risotto ($8.50, another bargain), with nutty spelt ably stepping in for rice, generously flecked with herbs and finished with an autumnal blend of butternut squash and chard.

The baking team also has a well-developed sweet side. They don't stray too far from the familiar cookie-scone-muffin orbit (all well done, by the way), but when they do they really hit it; my favorite was a perfect pear crisp, the fruit still firm and flavorful, each bite zinging with wicked ginger undertones. Great rugalach, too.

Schwartzman, 25, turned from a career as a community organizer to become a first-time restaurateur. In his case, his vocations aren't such polar opposites. "I wanted to make a place where conversations happen," he told me. I was interested in talking up his zealous commitment to area farmers and producers. "For whatever reason, we're trained that 'local' and 'organic' have to also mean 'expensive,' but it is possible to pull it off," Schwartzman said. "Local food is more work, because it forces you to work with many more vendors, and it forces you to be creative. But I think it's a key reason why people keep coming back."

Sold. Although, I have to admit: He had me at the bagels.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

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  • It takes a crew to keep the busy Common Roots Cafe from left to right: Alisa Hoven, barista; Ixchel Swinehard, cook; Maria Benavides, barista; Kotiareenia Taylor, cook; Tanya Peterson, baker; Danny Schwartzman, owner; Monique Askew, community organizer; and in the back Phil Werst, general manager.

  • COMMON ROOTS CAFE ★★ 1/2

    Location: 2558 Lyndale Av. S., Minneapolis, 612-871-2360, www.commonrootscafe.com.

    Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

    Atmosphere: A rejuvenated 1890s storefront, with perky colors against warm battered brick and lots of sunlight.

    Service: Friendly and fleet.

    Sound level: Not an issue.

    Recommended dishes: Bagels and fixings, always. Menu changes frequently, but soups, deli salads and nightly dinner specials are a definite highlight.

    Wine list: Slim roster of both Minnesota and fair-trade Chilean wines. Marvelous, hyper-local beer selection. Great weekday happy hour (4 to 6 p.m.), when all beers are $3 and all wines $3.50.

    Price range: Rare to find anything over $8.

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