Parka's fare thrives with a Northwoods flair
It's a very good sign when you walk into a restaurant and see a bunch of chefs there, and I don't mean the ones working in the kitchen. I mean chefs who have come in after a long shift at their own restaurant to get a good bite to eat before going back to prep for the next service. Chefs in their checkered pants and non-slip shoes scooping up kale with roasted grapes, goat cheese, and hazelnuts and balancing it with a pint of Indeed Brewing's pale ale. An instantly recognizable, big-name chef taking a leisurely tour of the menu, much to the excitement of his server. A chef stopping in for an early-morning single-cup brew of Dogwood coffee and something golden, flaky, and messy from the front-and-center pastry case. Witnessing so many food-industry professionals flocking to the same place says a lot about the reputation and pedigree of that restaurant's team — whatever the chef equivalent of street cred is. For a discerning diner, walking into a scene like this provides confidence that you've chosen well and very likely will be taken on an enjoyable ride of noms, sips, stolen last spoonfuls, and conversations in which everyone tries to identify that one herb with the name no one can remember (hint: It's marjoram). That's exactly what I found during a handful of visits to Parka, the new Longfellow coffee shop and restaurant brought to you by a trifecta of Minneapolis institutions: Dogwood Coffee, Rustica Bakery, and Victory 44.
Taking the strongest parts of each business, Parka emphasizes carefully sourced ingredients (which so often make the difference between a good meal and a great one), the subversion of expectations, and elaborate yet playful composition and presentation, all delivered in a casual setting. The result is both humble and high-end, conveying a "no big deal" attitude, which is also very Minnesota: "Oh, you're wearing your sloppy, salt-stained snow boots and enormous sleeping bag of a winter coat? No big deal. Sit down and enjoy this impossibly moist beer-can chicken with perfectly textured popcorn grits."
Parka's interior is like that of a brightly accented lodge, updated for the modern age. The restaurant has replaced the typical cabin decor of glassy-eyed, taxidermied deer heads with crafty cardboard sculptures of 10-point bucks wearing stylish wool scarves. It avoids the overdone Papyrus font and faux birch-bark trims so often used by businesses trying to communicate, "Hey! We're woodsy!" in favor of a simple and sporty logo designed by local printmaking studio Aesthetic Apparatus (which also has associations with Forage, the vintage and handmade furniture and housewares store that shares space with Parka). Touches like the beautiful enamelware cups used as water glasses will have you longing for a summer camping trip. But above all, Parka is doing extraordinary things with old-fashioned Northwoods fare.
Yes, the food! It's what those off-duty chefs, neighbors, and cute families are queueing up for, isn't it? The inspiration behind Erick Harcey's menu is classic Minnesota: goulash, chicken wild rice soup, even cranberry jello salad. But as familiar as most of the dishes sound, the team at Parka tries to surprise, please, and pique the interest of their diners at every turn. You will not find a cream-of-whatever soup casserole or a sloppy Joe here (though I'd be interested to see how Parka would reinterpret them). Although now that I think of it, there is cheese whiz. Well, a cheese whiz of sorts. It's really a foamy, creamy, dill-accented, truffly feat of molecular gastronomy, and it comes as a dipping sauce on the side of one of my favorite indulgences at Parka: the ham and pickle tots. When Kate Moss said nothing tastes as good as being skinny feels, she obviously had never had one of these ingenious croquettes. Fried to a crisp, piping hot, and filled with the makings of what I have always known simply as a "roll-up" (a.k.a ham rolled around a cornichon with a smear of cream cheese), this is what a savvy hostess would serve at a retro-futuristic cocktail party.
The tots are an excellent prelude to, well, anything, but particularly to another small bite: Parka's rabbit meatballs. It's hard to glean from the description on the menu, but the meatballs actually come in the form of two little sandwiches on buttered, griddled Rustica buns, with a sweet apricot-and-pistachio chutney. They're served with a fistful of candy-striped beet chips sprinkled with vinegar powder (please package these to sell, pronto). Parka also does a take on chicken wild rice soup, which is as comforting as the original but tastes far more exotic. The solid components of the soup — the toasted wild rice, king oyster mushrooms, and savory marshmallow sprinkled with ras el hanout, a North African spice blend — all arrive in a clear bowl that looks like something designed by Eero Aarnio. Then the liquid broth is poured over them, tableside, from a ceramic vessel shaped like a chicken. This ceremony, gone for a long time from restaurants all over the country, seems to be making a slight comeback, and I have no explanation for it. It's fun, sure, but it serves no real purpose, and in my experience makes for a tepid soup. That said, the flavor in this one was outstanding and, though it wasn't exactly creamy, still had nice body.
As far as the larger plates, if you've been to Victory 44 you'll recognize some of the lingo ascribed to Harcey's techniques. For example, Parka's pot roast (which was tender and served with plenty of jus) came with three carrot "textures" — in this case, braised, pickled, and the green tops. More tricks and treats are found in the meatloaf sandwich, with bacon-tomato jam and meaty, fluffy French fries with melt-away duck fat powder. The fish fry was among the more conventional dishes, but the chef still took care to add spicy (jalapeños) and sweet (pineapple) notes to complement the light-as-air batter on the fish. As a side to any entree, get the Brussels sprouts. Something about the nearly identical size and shape, but complete textural discrepancy, between the sprouts and the itty-bitty smoked eggs in the same dish makes for a really interesting bite.
Thanks to Rustica and strong in-house pastry talent, desserts here are no slouches, either. I particularly loved the deconstructed banana cream pie, made from shards of well-baked pastry and layers of yuzu and banana jam, chocolate shavings, salted caramel, and a thick banana pastry cream. If that sounds over the top, well, it is. But it's worth the caloric intake. If you'd rather share some nibbles, there's always the selection of homemade bars (of course) and cookies (Rustica's amazing bittersweet chocolate cookie and sharp ginger cookies are both usually available). They come with a flight of local milk from Autumnwood and Castle Rock Farms. While considering the differences between each little shot, it's impossible not to feel a little like Napoleon Dynamite at the Future Farmers of America competition.
Honestly, I found very little, if anything, to fault during my visits to Parka, but I generally went during non-rush hours when the wait for a table was 10 minutes or less. If you like to have breakfast or unlimited refills of coffee from a server who stops by with a carafe, you may take issue with this place (Parka's service doesn't start till 11 a.m., and its single-cup brew takes a while to make). But Longfellow seems to be welcoming it with open, puffy-jacketed arms. So settle in, order with confidence, and while you're eating, do like Joe Cocker says and feel free to leave your hat (and boots and snow pants) on.
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