Savvy decisionmaking hangs in the air. The museum was wise to partner with Culinaire, the Dallas-based outfit that also oversees Sea Change at the Guthrie Theater and Fika at the American Swedish Institute. The food-and-beverage giant excels at steering clear of cookie-cutter cliches. Rather than emphasizing some droning corporate hive mind, the company relies upon idiosyncratic local talents to create one-of-a-kind properties.
Culinaire was smart to tap chef Doug Flicker, one of the Twin Cities' most valuable culinary resources (his four-star Piccolo is closing on March 11, after a seven-year run), to lead its Walker initiative. In turn, Flicker mined his connections to recruit key players, including chef de cuisine T.J. Rawitzer (his résumé features D'Amico Cucina, La Belle Vie and Flicker's much-missed Auriga) and general manager Kim Tong, a longtime Piccolo vet.
The first responsibility of any self-respecting museum restaurant lies in its ability to satisfy and delight gallery-goers, and in this respect, Esker Grove succeeds, beautifully. The daytime counter-service setup is everything a museum visitor could ask for, and then some.
Along with gracefully composed soups and salads — sometimes it seems as if the kitchen staff spends half their days wandering the galleries upstairs, seeking composition and color inspiration — the lunch menu is primarily divided along two lines.
One sticks to proletariat sandwiches, scrupulously rendered: a gotta-have cheeseburger, a marvelous exercise in fried chicken, a decadent grilled cheese. Oh, and a pair of open-faced delights. One tops a thin spread of preserved Italian olives with two eggplant preparations, the other is a punchy sweep of hummus, finished with creamy avocado, roasted beets and Brussels sprouts leaves. So good.
The second half is devoted to cleverly conceived rice and grain bowls, whether it's couscous with zesty lamb sausages (produced up the street at Lowry Hill Meats), or Asian-accented red rice, fortified with the kitchen's happy obsession with rotisserie-roasted vegetables.
But the restaurant's ambitions lie far beyond mere "museum restaurant." Flicker and Rawitzer are serving dinner six nights a week, and on five of those evenings, the Walker's galleries close at 5 p.m. This is destination dining.
Salads take on almost sculptural qualities, and pile up astonishing flavor and texture nuances. Like the daytime's lovely smoked sturgeon rillettes, an outrageously fatty pork shoulder-pork liver terrine is a marvel of old-school craftsmanship. Ditto a phyllo-like tart that celebrates a kitchen favorite, celery root, contrasting its essential earthiness with palate-cleansing apple accents.
A third of the entrees are vegetarian, heralding Flicker and Rawitzer's fascination with plant-based cooking. Cauliflower, the garden's blank canvas, gets a miso glaze, then preserved mushrooms, slow-cooked onions and crunchy puffed wild rice. The inherent sweetness of parsnips is downplayed by poaching them in tangy goat's milk. They're caramelized in a cast-iron pan, then dressed in a cocoa-fueled espresso reduction for maximum bitter contrasts. "I didn't miss meat, not for a second," said my friend. Exactly.
If there's a downside to this veggie-centric way of thinking, it's having the nerve to charge $21 for what's essentially a head of cauliflower. Asking $19 for a few parsnips — no matter how skillfully manipulated — ranks right up there, too. But they're outliers, because the rest of the menu's prices feel spot-on.
Naturally, there are meat, poultry and seafood options, too, and strikingly rendered (if occasionally overwrought). The kitchen's biggest plaything — a rotisserie — is the magic act behind fork-tender lamb shoulder and what is probably the restaurant's signature dish, brined and spit-roasted sturgeon. A stunner, it's given a futuristic treatment with a blackened rub of charred and powdered mushrooms and onions, and served with crunchy, wrinkled, chicharrón-like fried sturgeon skins.
There's a short (perhaps too short) bar menu, mostly lunch and dinner retreads. Wouldn't it be great to see the bar catering to those dropping in for a performance, and/or the Walker's no-admission Thursday evenings?
The sharply executed desserts are by chefs Jaclyn Von, Anna Berzelius and Mary Cooper, and their collaboration results in exceptional output, whether it's a candy bar-inspired approach to butterscotch budino, a deconstructed (but not shattered beyond all recognition) almond cake, a fragile Pavlova brimming with intense tropical fruit flavors, or the coffee bar's butter-drenched cookies and knobbly scones.
At the excellent brunch, Flicker and Rawitzer recalibrate just enough to generate newfound interest in dishes that we all should have yawned away years ago. French toast, often sickeningly sweet, goes savory, due to a slightly nutty whole-grain brioche and the inclusions of sage and salty prosciutto. It's a fabulous, sort-of breakfast Monte Cristo, with maple syrup.
The croque-obsessed — present company included — will swoon for the Esker Grove version, a speck-raclette wonder that's brightened by shears of tart apple. Crisp, corny tostadas are layered with black beans, succulent pulled pork, snips of smoky bacon and a rich, hearty mole.
Why bother with yogurt when there's Rawitzer's delectable banana custard, served with a granola built with seeds and dried fruit? And Cream of Wheat will never be the same, after one encounters the wide bowl of semolina that's cooked, polenta-style, in vegetable stock and half-and-half, finished with Parmesan and topped with a sci-fi runny egg — the whites remain a bit loose — and a splash of an earthy, tea-like jus composed of dried porcini and black trumpet mushrooms. (This is a kitchen that loves technology.)
Yes, two eggs any style and other assorted brunch basics are also on the menu. And I've saved best for last. Along with an ever-changing savory tart (so flaky, so buttery), the must-have item is a plate of doughnut holes that defy all manner of fried dough engineering. They're admirably delicate, melt-in-your-mouth orbs, prodigiously crusted with twinkling sugar and paired with a curry-infused caramel sauce.
A total knockout
HGA, the Minneapolis architectural giant, has devised a new $23.3 million pavilion — with Esker Grove at its heart — to ingeniously unspool all kinds of Byzantine floor plan issues that cropped up following the museum's 2005 expansion.
The new footprint has rightfully returned the museum's main entrance back to Vineland Place, opposite the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Now the museum's welcome mat, Esker Grove is one Walker dining operation that will never suffer from out-of-sight-out-of-mind syndrome. It's the brick-and-mortar equivalent of a Wal-Mart greeter, a role that will only be accentuated when the restaurant's front-and-center patio opens in a few months.
The dining room maintains the museum's crisp white color palate (and a commissioned artwork — a remarkable collage by Duluth artist Frank Big Bear — underscores the you're-in-an-art-museum aura), but a handsome tongue-in-groove walnut floor and curvy, covet-inducing Eames molded wood side chairs lend a human-scaled warmth.
Enormous expanses of glass blur the line between inside and outside; post-sunset, the lighting is somehow even more flattering. A slanted ceiling not only counters the space's otherwise forthright right angles, but it also serves an acoustic function, facilitating conversation, even during standing-room-only periods.
Yep, HGA's work is a tailor-made expression of this visually obsessed institution: effortlessly stylish, yet instantly comfortable, and a prime people-watching venue. (One incongruity: After hours, the lobby's crisp minimalism is truncated by a utilitarian, accordion-style wall that is both drearily brown and decidedly un-Walker-like.)
Here's hoping that HGA — which is also responsible for another recent well-functioning jaw-dropper, the extraordinary Surly Brewing Co. destination brewery — will garner more restaurant commissions. Our city would be the better for it.
In terms of its restaurants, the argument can be made that the Walker is something of a cursed address. Think about it. Over the past 13 years, four dining establishments — going back to Gallery 8, 20.21 and Gather — have come and gone within the museum's walls.
We should all wish for Esker Grove to exhibit true staying power, because this exceedingly well-managed restaurant deserves to become a major asset, to the museum, and the city. If it isn't already.
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib