The strip of Manchester Avenue west of Vandeventer, now the Grove, formerly Forest Park Southeast, slowly is coming out of a cocoon that housed merely a strip of bars. Spreading some multi-cultural wings, the neighborhood now is attracting a number of improving restaurants. Among the recent openings is Agave, a Mexican restaurant that’s considerably more worldly than most around town. Worldly? White tablecloths, no hot sauce, either on the tables or by request (although you may order a small bowl of pico de gallo, the chopped fresh tomato-onion-pepper salsa, for $3), and a well-designed wine list as well as a group of specialty cocktails, tequilas and beers.
Owner Coby Arzola, of the family that has run Chuy Arzola’s in Dogtown for many years, lives upstairs over the store and has a feeling for interior design that has brought media notice for his living quarters. At the restaurant, he’s really gone to town, although with a fine sense of restraint. The double storefront rooms are quite handsome.
Much of the menu avoids the cliches of Mexican restaurants in the Midwest, and it’s apparently caused concern in some diners who yearn for their enchilada platters with rice and beans. We’ve got plenty of those already. Agave is trying to move in a different direction. For example, instead of just chips, diners receive a bread basket that is a fine start. The yeast bread, with dried cranberries and pumpkin seeds, arrived with a chipotle-lime butter, a seemingly odd pairing that worked very well.
However, we still couldn’t resist ordering guacamole. It’s one of our acid tests for a Mexican restaurant. We deduct points for the use of mayonnaise, and for the sort of smoothness that makes us think it came out of a blender. We want some seasoning, thanks, and we’d prefer that it not be freezing cold. (We understand health department rules, of course, but there are places that seem to go way beyond – or below -- that.) Agave’s guacamole is merely fabulous, deeply chunky, well flavored, equally pleasant with or without that pico de gallo. And the chips were fresh and un-greasy.
It’s a little surprising to hear the server in a Mexican restaurant describe the corn and crab soup as a chowder. It wasn’t the polite, nearly bland dish that the word "chowder" brings to mind. This was a big-flavor dish, full of the richness of the shellfish and corn that was surprisingly sweet for this time of year. Nor was it awash in too much cream, or glowing with pepper. The seasoning was forthright, but not overwhelming.
Mole sauce is traditionally for fowl. Turkey mole isn’t unusual, we understand, although most restaurants seem to pair it with chicken. Agave serves an apple mole with duck -- a leg quarter and five slices of breast. Using apple lightens the sauce, making the diner look a little harder for the other ingredients, including several kinds of chiles, nuts and unsweetened chocolate. It is an excellent introduction to mole for the inexperienced. The breast, still a little pink, was moist, but we thought the leg, cooked longer, seemed happier with the sauce. Alongside came an ear of grilled corn basted with a seasoned butter, and some slightly peppery asparagus. As grilled corn is apt to be, it was still rather chewy, but again, for something this far out of season, it was much tastier than might be expected.
Grilled shrimp appeared in a sauce with pieces of fig and sun-dried tomato. There was a small amount of heat in the sauce, just enough to nudge the other flavors up, but did not overwhelm the shrimp, whose flavor and texture benefitted from not being cooked to death.
Most of the Agave desserts are traditional choices that have been imaginatively tweaked. Our flan, for instance, was as dense as expected, but not made tough by overcooking. It was flavored with coconut, sprinkled with pistachios, and sauced with cajeta, a caramel that’s made with goat’s milk, which gives it a slight tang. The combination was excellent.
We drank margaritas, and were glad we did. The Agave margarita is first rate, a generous pour with real fruit juice, not the powdered mix, and one of those beverages that it’s easy to order again, and then again. Arzola also has put together an interesting wine list that is priced rather moderately.
4198 Manchester Ave.
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner Tues.-Sat.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Good