Cafe Agri: Slow Food, Puritan Style

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Café Agri opened recently in the former My-T-Fine Bakery space at 43rd and Bryant Ave. S. in south Minneapolis. That’s Agri as in agritourismo, the new Italian (and Spanish) vogue of rustic farm-stay vacations where you get to crush the grapes with your feet and milk the sheep and eat hearty meals with crusty breads and sausages and fettucine and pasta.

Except you won’t find crusty breads or sausages or fettucine at Cafe Agri. Nor olives or sun-dried tomatoes or anchovies or even garlic.

Cafe Agri, 4300 Bryant Avenue South, Minneapolis, 612-822-3101.

Café Agri is the brainchild of Fabrizio Ciccone, who at various times has been a partner in Nochee and Arezzo, and still owns Aura in Calhoun Square.

“As Italians,” Ciccone explained in a press release, “we appreciate the fresh ingredients and country life that combine to bring the Agritourism concept to life–that’s why we’ve used it as our inspiration to bring this restaurant to Minneapolis.”

This is a restaurant with a mission: “We hope that you join us in learning more about how our food is produced and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. We purchase as many ingredients as possible from local producers, including local fish from Wisconsin and Minnesota. We’ve also partnered with the Slow Food movement which is founded upon the concept of eco-gastronomy – a recognition of the vital connections between plate and planet.”

Except for one fish entrée, the menu is entirely vegetarian, and a lot of it is vegan. Ciccone recently became a vegetarian himself, and the menu has an aura of zealous purity about it. Except for Sonny’s ice cream, everything on the menu is prepared without refined sugar, wheat flour, eggs, butter, (and very little other fat or oil).

The ravioli and crostini are advertised as gluten-free (what does that have to do with eating locally or saving the planet?). There is no butter – and very little other fat or oil, but there is plenty of tempeh and tofu – as in the hazelnut asparagus and seared maple tofu ($12), and fennel-ginger tempeh with sweet onion.

The mention of Slow Food is a bit misleading – this menu comes out of a totally different tradition. The Slow Food people are omnivores – they eat meat and dairy and wheat breads and butter and eggs – everything in moderation – but they are very principled about where their food comes from and how it is produced. Cafe Agri’s cuisine comes out of the old puritannical American health food / food faddism tradition that goes back to Sylvester Graham and high colonics. (Chef Dan Alvin was previously chef at Ecopolitan, the raw foods restaurant in the same tradition.)

I can’t say that I enjoyed the few dishes I tried – “crostini” made of unleavened flax “bread”, served with a spread made of kale (I think), black beans and onions; grilled vegetable tempeh ($4); a nightly special of roasted red potatoes, asparagus and eggplant, prepared with minimal sauce or seasoning ($12); and a dry “spicy yam hash” topped with a lot of red heirloom beans ($10).

But I am not the target audience for this restaurant. This is not food for hedonists. This is food for people who regard their diet as an important part of their spiritual journey and treat butter, sugar and flour as defilements of the temple of their body.

There seem to be enough devotees of this kind of cuisine in the Twin Cities to keep Ecopolitan in business, and I expect that they will also enjoy Cafe Agri.

Wine and beer arrive in July.The wines will all come from Etica, the local company that specializes in fair-trade wines.