The Grove is a place where chefs and restaurateurs can take chances. In a town that loves its free chips and salsa and order-by-the-numbers Mexican — a town where convincing people to go to Cherokee Street and pay less for more authentic and usually better Mexican food is a pain — owner Coby Arzola (of the family that owns the popular Chuy Arzola's in Dogtown) is taking quite a chance with the upscale Mexican restaurant Agave.
Agave opened in mid-October at the corner of Manchester and Boyle av-enues, roughly the midpoint of the Grove. Like the restaurant I reviewed last week, Newstead Tower Public House, Agave's building has been extensively rehabbed into a warm, welcoming space.
You enter into the bar, which boasts an impressive array of tequilas behind the counter (more on those in a second), the obligatory flat-screen TV set above it and a few tables for dining. The more sedate dining room features colorful paintings on the walls and star-like metal fixtures dangling from the ceiling. The layout has one drawback: The bathrooms are positioned along one wall of the dining room, affording several tables a view of bathroom doors opening and closing and of diners waiting a turn.
As its name might suggest, Agave is a tequilería as well as a restaurant. The tequila list features more than 80 selections, most available as single pours or eight-ounce "carafes," and the menu suggests a tequila to pair with each dish. Duty precluded me from sampling this selection; even very good tequila, sipped slowly, has an interesting effect on me.
(I recall — dimly — running through the streets of Sheffield, England, one night with my arms outstretched, pretending to be an airplane. Though that tequila wasn't very good, and I certainly didn't sip it.)
The cocktail list includes a fantastic house margarita. There's also an intriguing variation made with tamarind purée, and another called "La Paloma," a tart, refreshing mixture that features the grapefruit soda Squirt. With La Paloma, especially, you could easily pickle yourself over the course of a hot summer afternoon. There is even tequila ice cream. It may take you a second or two to locate the flavor, but once you do, it's unmistakable.
Leading the kitchen is chef Vincent Anderson, who has worked at Blue Water Grill, JackSons' and Lester's Sports Bar, among other local restaurants. His menu doesn't veer very far from the Mexican dishes you likely know — salsa and guacamole, refried black beans and tortilla soup, carne asada and carnitas — but the quality of the ingredients and the focus on presentation are indicative of the top-shelf restaurant Agave aspires to be.
For example, the guacamole — my favorite of Agave's appetizers, maybe my favorite dish there, period — is no simple mash of avocado, spices, maybe some tomato. Instead the kitchen cuts the avocado into medium-size chunks. This allows for a stronger flavor and a definite, though still soft, texture. Poblano peppers and roasted garlic provide bite and savory depth, and the exact-right proportion of fresh lime juice brightens everything.
The guacamole comes with carrots and radish, but I scooped most of it up with the blue- and white-corn tortilla chips that accompanied an order of three salsas. Best of these was a blend of chopped mango and habanero chile, sweet and hot. (Those wary of the habanero's deserved reputation as one of the hottest chiles need not fear: The salsa's not that hot.) A traditional pico de gallo was tasty, if, well, traditional, while the roasted tomatillo salsa verde emanated a very strong note of roasted garlic.
A cheese fondue "estilo Tequila" blends melted Oaxaca, Manchego and goat cheeses with caramelized red onion. The dish is finished with flamed tequila, though, sadly, the flaming occurs in the kitchen, not tableside. At any rate, the blend of tangy, funky cheeses is a certain crowd pleaser. Another combination of can't-miss ingredients is camarones con chorizo: three very plump prawns stuffed with chorizo and Manchego cheese then wrapped in bacon.
My favorite entrées didn't break new ground for Mexican cuisine in St. Louis; rather, they were simply good dishes prepared well. Chilaquiles is a tortilla-chip casserole, often served for breakfast as a hangover cure. Agave serves chilaquiles as a flavorful, mildly spicy blend of adobo-grilled chicken, poblano peppers and roasted tomatoes topped with tortilla chips (or maybe one big tortilla chip; it was difficult to tell), which itself is topped with a layer of Chihuahua cheese. This avoids the pitfall of chilaquiles: the tortilla chips becoming too soggy even before the dish reaches your table.
The carnitas de Michoacán brought a generous serving of pork, a tangy tomatillo salsa and a pleasantly bitter cabbage slaw. In general, carnitas are prepared by roasting pork for a very long time and then frying it briefly in its own fat. This results in tender meat with a browned, sometimes crisp, exterior. Agave's carnitas weren't as browned as I'd have liked, but this did allow the meat's subtle citrus and oregano seasoning to come through.
I might have liked more subtlety from the carne asada entrée. This was a decent cut of steak seasoned with garlic and chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. I loved the first smack of peppery, garlicky meat, but it wore me down after a few bites. A side of refried black beans was tasty, but mashed plantains were bland and had the texture of Stove Top stuffing.
Pato con mole de manzana is a seared duck breast and roasted duck leg served over a smoked-apple mole. This struck me as the most exciting dish on the menu, but my duck breast was overcooked to the point that the sauce was irrelevant. A highlight was grilled corn on the cob served on the side, glistening with butter and speckled with red pepper.
Like the duck, pollo "rayo del sol" seemed a victim of kitchen neglect. The chicken breast was supposed to be stuffed with chorizo and Manchego, Chihuahua and goat cheeses, but after much searching, we found only one crumb of chorizo. Without it, the dish was remarkably bland.
Its flaws notwithstanding, the duck and smoked-apple mole suggest a niche Agave could make for itself: a place to experience not-so-common regional Mexican dishes — or flights of the chef's imagination. And you have to respect a restaurant that serves tequila-flavored ice cream. I'll be back to sample a few of those high-end tequilas.
Should you see someone running around the Grove, arms outstretched, making sci-fi spaceship noises, stop me to say hello.
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