The edible salutation that greets diners at Xavi isn’t a fussed-over, assembled-with-tweezers amuse-bouche. Don’t expect a bread basket, either.
“We don’t want to serve something we bought, and we’re not baking bread, at least not yet,” said chef/co-owner Michael Agan. “We want to be friendly, and hospitable, and that kind of nice, welcoming gesture should come from something we’ve made.”
Those crunchy palate awakeners are one way that Agan and business partner James Elm announce their intention to reset the familiar Neighborhood Restaurant model. Scan the menu, and you’ll find another. What’s most refreshing about Xavi (pronounced Jhah-vee) is the absence of the usual dining-out suspects. Burgers, flatbreads and other rote dishes are conspicuously absent.
“I’ve made several million chicken Caesar salads in my lifetime,” said Agan. “I don’t have anything else to say about them, or about all those other standards, except that you can get them somewhere else. We want to do our own thing here. We want to be unique, and fun, and approachable.”
That’s a business plan worth embracing. The most succinct embodiment of these admirable intentions is my favorite dish on the menu, a meant-to-be-shared plate of lamb ribs.
Agan adores lamb. But rather than go the $38 rack of lamb route (see Neighborhood Restaurant, earlier), he focuses his attention on this much more affordable cut, wisely calling upon a methodology that involves hints-of-the-Caribbean cure (allspice, ginger, garlic) and the grill’s charring powers.
Each meaty, fat-ribboned bite is perfectly balanced by refreshing, brazenly ripe slices of mango, and a vividly green, cool-as-a-cucumber cilantro sauce. Not bad for $13, and quite the opening salvo in the never-ending battle against the been-there, done-that.
Agan is at his nimblest when the subject turns to seafood. A don’t-miss appetizer of juniper- and sugar-cured sockeye salmon, fatty and velvety, is finished with an ingenious crème fraîche-like blend of coconut milk fermented with tangy buttermilk. Toss in crisp, delicate buckwheat crackers, and you have a witty play on lox and bagels.
Another starter took an ingenious pairing — brightly acidic grapefruit and firm, salty sea beans — to accentuate the inherent sweetness of raw, shimmeringly juicy scallops.
A different, equally appealing compare/contrast effort found monkfish, the flesh dense and snowy white, perched in a lively kaffir lime-mint broth and topped with earthy Chinese broccoli. When he turned to the Mediterranean (in the form of a robust picada) for striped bass inspiration, he hit the jackpot.
Xavi is that rare restaurant where the menu’s larger, protein-centric dishes are often more inventively compelling than the starters; frequently, that equation plays in reverse.
Agan circumnavigates the globe in search of inspiration, yet his efforts don’t exude a phony, “It’s a Small World” feel. Salty shrimp and creamy grits from the American South cozy right up to Japan’s slender, blistered, sweet-hot shishito peppers — an ideal shareable snack — and nothing feels amiss.
Or he’ll turn to his home kitchen, upping the game on a chicken dish he prepares for his family. It’s a picnic supper on steroids: Flavorful chicken quarters are boned, rolled, tied and glazed with a smoky ancho-chipotle glaze, then served with butter-drenched (and lime-teased) grilled corn. Lovely.
It would be easy to make a habit of the slow-braised, red wine-infused short ribs, their richness cut by bitter mustard greens.
On the subject of beef, there’s a steak on the menu. Agan keeps the price palatable by going with a flavorful hanger cut, breaking down the meat’s chewy qualities by enlisting a time-honored Korean barbecue method. It’s terrific, and the $25 price tag — the menu’s summit — is worth it.
A few missteps
What had been the longtime home of First Course remains a pair of zipped-together strip mall-ish storefronts.
What’s easily recalled is the uneven temperature. On my first visit, the air conditioning was blasting with such fervor that I considered asking for more napkins, to keep myself warm. On my second, the word sweltering applies. By the third, the kinks appeared to have been worked out. The less said about the bleakly uninviting patio, the better.
All fixable, as are other issues. That delicious roasted chicken was billed as “crispy,” but the limpid skin resided down the street from that adjective. That cured salmon was a stunner on one visit, then turned fishy and ham-handedly garnished on a subsequent night.
A beauty of a salad (it could have been described as “sculpted” rather than merely “tossed”), one that placed garden-fresh carrots in the spotlight, was brazenly overdressed. A few dishes (overcooked duck, pork dumplings in a muddy mushroom broth) fell flat. Vegetarians have little from which to choose.
Desserts, like the decor, don’t leave much of an impression, in part because they don’t share the lively spontaneity that sparks so much of Agan’s work. Oh, and the tab can have a tendency to quickly escalate, stretching that “neighborhood restaurant” definition.
Over the course of their 20-year friendship — they met at work, of course — Agan and Elm talked of teaming up and running their own show. Opportunity knocked, rather unexpectedly, when First Course closed.
“We felt we had to jump at it,” said Agan. “It’s a great partnership. James is wonderful at things that I’m incompetent at, and vice versa.”
Elm is Xavi’s general manager, overseeing a notably sharp service staff. Agan, who forged a career by working for a blue-ribbon fraternity of Twin Cities chefs, is now, finally, signing his own paycheck. Diners are benefiting from the timing.
“It’s fun to think of all that I’ve learned from all the chefs that I’ve admired, and how I’m applying that here,” said Agan. “That feels good.”