A recent breakfast at Tao Natural Foods recalled a sage observation made by my high school art history teacher, one that has stuck with me all these decades later. We were discussing the seemingly simplistic aspects of Minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly's work, and a classmate quipped, "I could have done that." Mr. Beehler rolled his eyes. "The point is, you didn't," he said.
That's the Deep Thought that flashed across my mind as my spoon began to tear into a fetching breakfast parfait at Tao (pronounced dow). Just looking at it made me feel healthier, and it was a paragon of taken-for-granted juxtapositions: the sour tang of rich whole-milk yogurt against the genial sweetness of apples, soft banana vs. crunchy granola, bright blueberries next to pale green kiwi fruit. What a lovely way to greet the morning, truly. "Why don't I make this at home?" is what I scribbled in my notebook. Sheer laziness, probably.
All-organic Tao isn't exactly a beacon of culinary innovation. But it's not trying to be, either. The restaurant, part of a larger natural health foods and wellness operation that dates back to 1971 (even further at a previous location), is more the equivalent of a vegetarian/vegan short-order diner, with home-style cooking elevated to a modest commercial scale. It fills a niche, and, in many cases, does what it does very well.
Back to breakfast. I'm not much of an oatmeal person, but Tao's tasty version -- fortified with flax, millet and sunflower seeds -- could make me a convert. Like most of the kitchen's sandwiches, its a.m. version starts with a hearty multigrain bread from Solomon Bakery in Minneapolis before being piled high with avocado, Cheddar, a remarkably juicy tomato and a fried egg. Nice, and even better with a side of another minor triumph, an impressively fresh salsa.
My love affair with the kitchen's creamy-yet-chunky guacamole started with its breakfast burrito, which is liberally crammed with toothy black beans, rice, scrambled eggs and that marvelous salsa. Oh, and the tender, lightly toasted waffles, made with what sounds like a guilt-free mix of every grain and nut in the bulk foods aisle at the co-op, are dressed with a pleasant combination of walnuts and a dark maple syrup.
Yes, I will admit to stifling a snotty little smirk when an earnest and utilitarian-looking plate of rice and steamed vegetables was placed in front of me. But you know what? With each virtuous forkful, the short-grain brown rice began to reveal all kinds of winning attributes: semi-crunchy, sort of nutty, slightly sticky and sneakily delicious. Ditto the cauliflower, broccoli, kale, cabbage and other nourishing if standard-issue vegetables, ramped up by the kitchen's take-no-prisoners hot sauce and a splash of sesame oil.
Kitchen manager Sam Needham and his crew also put up about a dozen sandwiches, ranging from a decent tempeh Reuben to a terrific grilled Rachel, stuffed with thick slices of Minnesota-raised turkey. It's one of two animal proteins served at the restaurant; the other is a high-quality canned albacore tuna, the base of a swell tuna salad sandwich.
The juice bar's deeply colorful concoctions, which overflow with brash, deeply satisfying flavors, are another major draw. The coffee and tea selections are top-notch and creative daily specials shake up the routine; kudos to a pair of delicate buckwheat crepes, rolled around the complementary blend of rosemary-scented roasted potatoes, chewy kale and sweet red peppers.
Another reason for the constant stream of customers is basic but scrupulously sourced leafy green salads, finished with the house's signature (and wonderfully vibrant) tahini-sesame dressing; Needham should bottle it for the grab-and-go case that's going to debut any time now.
The small, ever-shifting selection of gently sweet muffins, scones and sweet breads are frequently both good and good for you, a rare combination. But the ponderousness that can accompany flax, wheat germ and other fiber-filled sweets isn't entirely absent; witness a crisp of pretty, pink-skinned apples finished with a joyless, grainy topping that resembled barely edible sand. It's dessert, not punishment; why not enlist the shop's excellent granola instead?
The tempting-looking gluten-free cookies boast all the right flavor components, but their texture is less than ideal. A friend summed it up best when he said, "This ginger cookie is going to require the services of an entire glass of milk," and it did. Soy, naturally.
Other cautions: On several occasions, the service staff's unfamiliarity with the ordering system's computer screen seemed to mirror my own fleeting acquaintance with my semi-dumbfounding smartphone, with one difference: Their lack of training translated into long waits at the counter, while mine only means I'm clueless about posting photos to my minuscule Twitter following.
Wines -- new to the restaurant, and a welcome addition -- were rarely served at the proper temperature. The cooking can be uneven, too. A ginger-carrot soup was so vigorously seasoned that it could have been billed as an extra-strength sinus cleanser, yet the chili is surprisingly drab, the embodiment of the knee-jerk response to the word vegan. Oh, and what's with those plastic takeout containers? They're uncharacteristically eco-unfriendly.
Tao can be overpriced. There, I said it.
I'm semi-addicted to the egg salad sandwich -- with their creamy, super-golden yolks, it's obvious that the principal ingredient is first-rate -- but $9 is a lot to ask. Maybe I've grown accustomed to the $7-and-under quality/value paradigm at Chipotle, because another Tao highlight, the hefty burrito packed with sweet potatoes, black beans, guacamole and a tangy garlic-yogurt sauce, feels expensive at $9.25.
But something's got to foot the bill for Tao's recent renovation, right? The random hemp-meets-hanging basket decor has thankfully been replaced by a savvy mix of old, repurposed and new. The results, which appear to grow organically, no pun intended, from the building's historic pharmacy setting are utterly charming, a refuge for the soul that's as restorative as the food.
Even better, a large number of patio seats spill onto the sidewalk, taking full advantage of one of those irregular green spaces that dot Hennepin Avenue as it cuts across the south Minneapolis street grid.
Seemingly overnight, the restaurant has the street presence that it strangely never had, despite its high-traffic location. Tao, 41 years young, has been granted a much-needed new lease on life, and I'll raise a glass of organically farmed pinot gris to that.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib