Using the Lutheran potluck as inspiration for a restaurant almost sounds like the punch line of an Ole and Lena joke.
But Parka, the playful and promising collaboration involving Victory 44, Rustica and Dogwood Coffee, doesn’t stick to that tired script. Instead, chef Erick Harcey taps into the winning essence of church-basement traditions and then, with an assist from chef de cuisine Jen Farni, shrewdly channels them into modern, frequently delicious cooking.
Who will ever look at Tater Tots, that hot dish staple, the same after Harcey re-imagines them with chopped ham and cornichons, breading them with panko and gingerly frying them to delicate, piping-hot crispiness? Certainly not yours truly.
Having been burger-ed into near-catatonia, Harcey finds refuge, with his equally burger-weary customers, in a meatloaf sandwich, a blend of pork, beef, oats and milk-soaked bread crumbs that’s cooked slowly, thickly sliced and stacked on a luxuriously tender brioche bun. It’s fantastic, and made only better with spot-on garnishes: pert icebox pickles, tangy Cheddar and a hearty bacon-laced tomato relish. Two bites into it and two words were ricocheting across my cortex: burger schmurger.
Attention must be paid to the onion rings. The menu bills them as the “best ever,” and it’s no exaggeration. Good Lord, they’re good, the sweet onions soaked in buttermilk to soften them into pliant silkiness, then a beer-fortified tempura batter robes them in a tantalizingly crispy coating.
Yes, there’s plenty to love here — including an outstanding fried chicken dinner — which is no surprise given Harcey’s impressive track record at Victory 44. He’s especially adept at salads, confidently nudging color, texture and flavor boundaries in beguiling directions; each one improves upon its predecessor.
The dreaded broccoli salad, the scourge of Luther League picnics everywhere, is born anew as a weave of slightly bitter roasted rapini and chewy blanched broccolini, splashed with a fragrant toasted black sesame dressing and finished with crunchy bits of sweet-savory sunflower brittle.
The nuances of crumbled goat’s cheese and roasted grapes seem to blossom when sharing a plate with both fried and fresh kale. And while it’s not billed as a salad, running carrots through a meat grinder — a process that transforms a taken-for-granted member of the relish-tray family into a sexy, mysterious foreigner — then adding a flurry of flavor-concentrated gels, pickled ginger and crispy quinoa, is a brilliantly delicious way to approach tartare from a vegetarian’s perspective.
For all of the highs, it’s not uncommon to encounter jarring potholes. A shrimp-crab cabbage roll was undermined by fishy, past-its-prime seafood. The promise of a skillfully layered and dramatically presented onion soup was dashed when the contents of a small pitcher — a glaringly over-salted beef-stock/red-wine broth — were emptied into a bowl artfully garnished with slow-braised oxtail and a caramelized onion purée.
There’s much to admire about the modern-day blue-plate special that is the open-faced hot beef sandwich (dreamy brown butter-laced mashed potatoes, for starters). But for all of its cleverness, the dish’s most lasting impression wasn’t that slices of mouth-meltingly tender beef had been somehow fashioned into a cube, but the less-than-lukewarm temperature.
Execution issues aside, it sometimes feels as if Harcey & Co. are trying too hard on the innovation front. It’s as if they’ve binge-watched an entire season of PBS’ “The Mind of a Chef,” then jumped, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen, eager to utterly transform comfort food as we know it.
Relax, already. Giving a pork chop the Salisbury steak treatment might sound appealing in theory. But in practice? Grinding pork loin into a garlicky, Spam-like sausage, for the sole purpose of re-affixing it back on the bone and shaping it into a chop, felt like a lot of work for so little reward.
Shrimp and grits, that glorious low-country hall-of-famer, was muddled by fussy preparations and unnecessary embellishments. Even those spectacular onion rings require the services of an editor. Or their garnish does, anyway. It may taste great — a warm paste of pickled mustard seed and espresso, such a provocative pairing — but it looks unappetizing.
The over-thought, overwrought desserts are the most egregious forays into overkill. With two happy exceptions, starting with the wisp of a bakery case. It’s a platform for — or, to some of us fanatics, a lifeline to — a greatest-hits selection of Rustica goodies, including the bakery’s cruelly addictive bittersweet chocolate cookies and elegant cherry frangipane. More, please.
Then there’s the loving (and lovingly executed) nod to our church cookbook culture, in the form of a family-style assortment of top-shelf, butter-drenched cookies and bars, laid out on a Minnesota-shaped cutting board and served with a trio of ice-cold milks sourced from local grass-fed farmstead dairies. It’s the kitchen’s wit at its sharpest and most affectionate; come on, what could be more Midwestern-wholesome than a milk flight?
The good news is that that Harcey is steering Parka’s ever-evolving format in a positive direction. He has prudently pared the menu, dropping a number of clunkers while simultaneously beefing up such brunch-appropriate dishes as his own take on French toast, eggs Benedict and biscuits and gravy. Later appetites are served by those gorgeous salads and a handful of terrific sandwiches, all prepared on superb Rustica bread, of course.
The cheery space could pass as the first apartment of a style-obsessed Portlandian or Brooklynite armed with a CB2 employee discount. The up-close-and-personal kitchen counter takes the top prize in the favorite-seat contest, although the stools at the front window are a close second. Two quibbles: Much of the furniture ultimately values looks over comfort, and a not-so-great ventilation system can leave diners’ clothes redolent of Parfum du Restaurant.
Turns out that Parka is all about collaborations, even when it comes to real estate. Waiting for a table isn’t the drag it usually is because the restaurant shares space (a former union hall, formerly nondescript) with Forage Modern Workshop, a quirky, highly browsable home-decor retailer. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is me uncharacteristically not complaining about a no-reservations policy. You saw it here first.