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.
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 that 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.
Werst has 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 bowtie 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 mothership, 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 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 Swiss chard.
For dessert, the baking team doesn't stray 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.
Owner Danny 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. "Local food is more work, because it forces you to work with many more vendors, and it forces you to be creative," he said. "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.