It seems you can't have a Minnesota restaurant opening party these days without a free coat check, free Bittercube cocktails and a free mobile tattoo parlor. 

More than 300 Twin Cities foodies put on their best snow boot chic Monday night to celebrate the opening of Esker Grove, chef Doug Flicker's new restaurant located in a 5,000 square-foot addition to the Walker Art Center. Only about nine people got inked on-site (despite the open bar) with the restaurant's logo, a worker bee, in honor of the sous chef T.J. Rawitzer. Many more picked up freshly pressed Tshirts with the logo, or an array of vegetables, or a picture of Flicker wearing a motorcycle helmet. (That design could be mistaken for Rick Moranis in "Spaceballs" but whatever.) Regrettably, the silk screeners quickly ran of smalls, and there were few folks in attendance in need of extra large. 

This is a small plates kinda place.

Actual samples of Esker Grove food on offer included bite-sized "sunchoke" potatoes, seared-scallops garnished with pomegranate seeds and roasted duck. The latter could be seeninside the kitchen, where guests formed a line to pick up their own hors d'oeuvres. Surely this was some form of health code violation?

"We filled out a bunch of paperwork about washing our hands," said Sherri Beier, the Walker's director of special events. "We have a permit for the tattoo artists too." 

Beier was unseasonably attired in a floral romper and slingbacks, the sort of outfit more appropriate for Esker Grove's terrace overlooking the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. 

"The restaurant will double in size in the summer," promised Walker director Olga Viso. She's hoping the ground floor view --which at night also includes the lit-up Basilica of St. Mary--will lure more diners than the Walker's current upper floor restaurant, which is well remembered as Wolfgang Puck's Asian-fusion flop.  That space will remain open for pre-show service near the theater, but will now otherwise be used as rental venue. Flicker, meanwhile, has announced plans to close his four-star venue Piccolo to focus on Esker Grove. 

Restaurateur Steven Brown, owner of St. Genevieve, was among those veterans congratulating Flicker last night. "What am I having?" he said, "I'm having lots of great conversations. I haven't eaten a thing." 

He's on good terms for Flicker, who Brown said has never stolen one of his employees. 

Food/art/music impresario Jon Scott Oulman, owner of Club 331 and other Twin Cities hotspots, did nibble, and also enjoyed a few glasses of cava. He held court in a tweed blazer and pocket square, and predicted good things now that the Walker's restaurant is more accessible.

"It's as if they actually want people to come here now," Oulman said.  





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