The first time I dined at Fig + Farro, I wondered if I was being punked.
It was last spring, a few months after the Calhoun Square vegetarian restaurant’s debut, when the kitchen’s leadership was a collective effort. Turns out that the whole too-many-cooks-spoiling-the-soup is an adage for a reason, because much of what was landing on the table was an unfathomable and unpalatable mystery.
This was despite the fact that plant-based cooking is firmly anchored at the forefront edge of contemporary American cuisine.
Owner and first-time restaurateur Michelle Courtright regrouped, did her restaurant a favor and hired a chef. Under Patrick Scott Moore, Fig + Farro 2.0 was a definite improvement, but his all-over-the-map menu was overpowered by quirky, overwrought dishes. Another disconnect: When I visited early last fall, local farmers markets were alive with an impressive array of vegetables, fruits, leafy greens, grains, herbs and other seasonal glories. Yet this bounty didn’t seem terribly familiar territory at Fig + Farro. Shouldn’t a plant-based restaurant celebrate, well, plants?
Courtright’s motives are certainly admirable. She’s casting a wide net beyond the small percentage of Americans who identify as vegetarian and vegan (5 and 3 percent, respectively, according to an August 2018 Gallup Poll), hoping to convince the Meatless Monday crowd on the merits of a plant-based diet, particularly when it comes to fostering a healthier planet and addressing climate change.
True to the Midwest, her advocacy — which extends to a monthly guest lecture series, classes and other events — isn’t preachy or in-your-face. It’s sensible, smart and engaging. If only those early menus had been a more convincing spokesperson.
Fortunately, Courtright embodies the virtues of persistence and stamina because, sometime late last fall, a switch seemingly flipped. She replaced Moore with Charlie Baez (he’s since departed) and retained sous chef Andrew Vuong (he’s still present, and doing a bang-up job running the show) and narrowed the kitchen’s focus from vegetarian to vegan. With this newfound framework, Fig + Farro appears to have finally settled into its comfort zone and found its audience. Hurrah.
The cooking is now much more colorful, fresh and appealing. Yellow peas give crisp falafel a fluffy lightness, and instead of tahini, a garlicky tzatziki packs a welcome wallop. Cauliflower, very nearly a requisite on menus right now, is transformed into a tempting snack though delicate frying and Middle Eastern seasoning. I loved the eggplant dip, shimmering with garlic and oregano and made for scooping up with a firm flatbread.
Shake off the cold during this snowy February over a hearty Tuscan bread soup brimming with white beans and rosemary, and get a nutrient boost from a lively rice bowl, or a beautifully composed salad (love that zippy jalapeño-miso dressing), one that replaces the dreary bagged field greens of previous kitchen regimes for chewy kale and peppery arugula.
Using thinly sliced celery root to step in for pasta with ravioli-like pockets (filled with earthy mushrooms) is both clever and delicious, although the kitchen’s own housemade (and egg-free) pasta has its merits, particularly when it’s formed into sheets for a spinach- and mushroom-filled lasagna.
Designer Ellen Hughes wisely divided the cavernous space into a series of comfort-minded zones. Following the business’ let’s-reduce-our-carbon-footprint mantra, Hughes scoured the secondhand circuit for tables, chairs, rugs and other furnishings, creating a funky, lived-in vibe.
Another, more visceral example of adaptive reuse is how the kitchen is finally making use of the space’s most valuable asset: a wood-burning oven, a “Flashdance”-era holdover from when previous tenant Figlio ruled the corner of Hennepin and Lake. It’s turning out crisp, shareable flatbreads; one was topped with figs, apples and a sweet-tangy balsamic glaze, an ideal dish during these carb-craving months.
My favorite time to visit the restaurant is at brunch. Sure, the baked goods aren’t operating on the same level as Colin Anderson’s handiwork at Eureka Compass Vegan Food in St. Paul, but they’re improving (Fig + Farro’s desserts at lunch and dinner are also on the upswing), and while this affirmed egg consumer isn’t entirely sold on the housemade Burmese tofu (it’s chickpea- rather than soy-based) passing as eggs, it’s an effective substitute.
Even better? A delectable bread pudding-esque French toast, lavished with pears and blueberries and a voluptuous dollop of whipped coconut milk; a potato-beet hash smothered with a zesty mushroom gravy; a well-stuffed breakfast burrito; and creamy golden grits (a great trick, seeing as how they’re dairy-free) topped with a crumbled plant-based sausage and tangy fermented chiles.
In a town where brunch has never been more exciting, it’s refreshing to see that one of the region’s few vegan restaurants is more than keeping up.
Fig + Farro ⋆⋆
Info: 3001 Hennepin Av. S. (Calhoun Square), Mpls., 612-208-0609, figandfarro.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.
Service: Not particularly polished, but earnest and enthusiastic.
Price ranges: At dinner, smaller plates $11-$13, larger plates $15-$20, side dishes and soups $5-$8, desserts $4-$8. Lunch dishes $7-$17. Brunch entrees $11-$15.
Recommended dishes: Yellow pea falafel, eggplant dip, rapini, winter ribollita, “Around the World” salad, forbidden rice bowl, lasagna, French toast, heirloom grits.
Beverage program: Three cheers for the eco-friendly all-keg wine program, which offers 11 reasonably priced selections in glass, half-carafe and carafe sizes. The well-chosen beer and cider roster taps into a dozen local producers. Love the fruity, nonalcoholic shrubs.
Sound level: Conversation-friendly, but steer clear of the children’s play area, which can get rowdy.
Special menus: Happy hour 4-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri.