What’s in a name?

Exploring the modern American menu at Xavi

Xavi's lamb ribs with mango and cilantro. Submitted photo

It’s called what, again? Xavi.

Clearly this is not the outcome of a focus group.

What happened was, friends James Elm, front man, and Michael Agan, chef, who bonded while working in a D’Amico establishment, couldn’t agree on a name for their soon- to-debut joint venture, so they kind of threw a dart at the many Wikipedia translations for “Come to our lovely new restaurant and enjoy yourself,” or something like that. It landed on a word in Basque, about as remote from our “Ya, you betcha” tongues as you could get. (Pause for group eye rolls at the Carlson School of Business.)

Mango Salad
Mango salad. Submitted photo

I’ll offer my own translation: a warm, inviting environment, both in setting and personnel, in which to savor original but not outrageous modern American cooking piqued with hints of foreign flavors. Pork belly with chermoula, for instance. Chicken with harissa. Yuzu pound cake. Salmon cured not the usual Scando way — rather, with coconut milk and a furikake spice blend. It’s among the dozen-strong list of small plates ($9–$16) from which we snagged the mango salad as our starter. It’s a riff on what you may have enjoyed in a Thai restaurant but utilizing sweet rather than tart fruit, paired with hair-thin stalks of cucumber and scallion, shreds of crispy lettuce, a sprinkle of savory cashews and the sharp scent of mint, all bathed in a ginger dressing whose surprise punch of heat builds fast and well.

Shrimp & Grits
Shrimp and grits. Submitted photo

Next app, a plate of shrimp and grits, again a bit off-center. The shellfish, sweet and nubile, bore a “What’s that?” scent. Oh yeah, star anise — along with lime salt and a hint of orange. The grits? No such luck: super-creamy texture (big mistake) devoid of flavor punch. Might as well be Cream of Wheat.

Beef tartare. Submitted photo

Next time: lamb ribs with mango and cilantro. And beef tartare with pickle-spice aioli (will that work?) Oh, BTW: Your complimentary amuse-bouche is a dish of pickles: coin-thin cukes, etc., in a sweet brine. Yum.

We sipped a crisp chenin blanc (available in half-glass portions, hurray) with our first entrée ($24-range): a pearly, plump and palpitating square of corvina. The fish is served with diced coriander-roasted squash, bits of pungent olives, marjoram, chili (subtle, that) and preserved lemon vinaigrette — all nicely balanced and tasty but nothing to write home (or to you) about.

What got our attention was our second choice: pull-apart-tender short ribs braised in red wine, which enriched the yummy gravy. Mustard greens added a coarse, cleansing contrast, while the bed of lemony polenta sent us into ecstasy — everything those earlier grits were not. A pour of a super Tuscan red hit the spot, too.

Dessert? Well, sure.

Following our server’s astute advice, we summoned the miso caramel pudding, abetted with a dash of sea salt. It tasted just like it sounds, which was, in a word, swell: sturdy yet creamy, potently flavored and served with a sesame tuile.

So, welcome, Xavi: A nice addition to the South Minneapolis dining scene.