Photography by Caitlin Abrams
Last year saw some big ideas for big restaurants that didn’t turn out to be big successes. Looking back at the closing of Il Foro, Parella, Scena, and Zio Italian, it wasn’t just the Italian theme that tied them together—they were all located in destination areas (Downtown, Uptown, and the Mall of America, respectively), and they all had well over 100 seats. Each had multiple large seating areas, which, when not full, made them seem even emptier.
By no means am I saying that size was the reason these places closed—there are many factors at play when restaurants shutter. But it is my job to ponder whether, in 2016, people are craving smaller rooms and a more intimate vibe. Take Xavi, recently opened in south Minneapolis at 56th and Chicago. It took over the space that was formerly First Course Bistro, which had been quietly running for 15 years. With a little updating, the space now has a modern feel that is clean and cozy, dark but inviting. Even with limited square footage it’s managed to creatively break the room into parts while keeping things close and buzzy. Each space offers a different view and a different vibe. To the left are some high-tops, to the right a wall-side banquette, in the middle a round table. There is also an open kitchen and a very small bar, both of which offer rail seating. It all feels similar to one of our best local restaurants, Corner Table, another small south Minneapolis gem.
Xavi is the first ownership undertaking for James Elm and chef Michael Agan, tried and true industry vets who smartly chose a small renovation project for their first eatery. The food at Xavi is lovely. As it says on the website, “Everyone gets pickles,” which is a much more au courant way to greet your guests than a staid bread basket, right? I liked that, rather than multiple sections, the menu is simply divided into small plates and entrées—that’s about all I need as a casual eater of fine things. We were lucky to arrive on a day when there was a chilled corn and buttermilk soup full of summer flavors. Though we missed the chanterelles by one day, our soup was decked with woodsy mushrooms, giving it a light meatiness. The bacalao might have been my favorite bite; the house-cured salt cod on sourdough was piled with parsley for a peppery bite that balanced the velvety fish.
Plates here are inventive and creative, but keep their eye on the eater and not just the kitchen’s ego. The beef tartare with mustard seeds, cabbage slaw, and pickle spice aioli hung together like a Reuben, while the kalbi-marinated hangar steak with summer beans and kimchi was a generous portion for $25. In short: It’s not all precious food that leaves you wanting a pizza on the ride home.
A few dishes fell flat. Shrimp and grits were cooked well enough, but the grits were bland and pasty. And the scallop crudo was dull if you missed a chunk of grapefruit in your bite. But this menu is a real exercise in seasonal cooking, which means duds won’t stay around long anyway. If I lived in this neighborhood, and was looking for a haunt of my own, Xavi would make me very happy. It wouldn’t surprise me if more diners start seeking smaller, intimate venues like Xavi, in which to commune with friends and food.