As fast-casual, quick service dining shows no signs of abating, finer dining restaurants fall by the wayside (or as chef Doug Flicker recently put it to me, "while the bottom gets pushed up, the top gets pushed down").
As a result, it’s becoming increasingly rare to find cooking that tastes truly special.
Sure, a great eggs Benedict can be special, and our favorite taco truck is special indeed. But what I’m talking about is food that makes you stop and think: dishes so pretty you have to gaze down upon your plate and contemplate whether the sure destruction by your fork is warranted, food that you are almost certainly not going to attempt to make at home.
It's the kind of cooking you’re going to get at the new Esker Grove in the Walker Art Center by Doug Flicker, just as you got at Piccolo, Flicker’s days-numbered restaurant in south Minneapolis. (Piccolo closes in March.)
But while Piccolo is certainly fine, with its little two- and three-bite wonders arranged with tweezers and droppers, the cooking at Esker Grove is almost opposite in its approach.
First and foremost, portions are back to a standard size at Esker Grove, and if the cooking at Piccolo was noted for its meticulousness, at Esker Grove the beauty is in the restraint. Dishes are plated almost geometrically, with shape and color that could make any art lover stop and stare.
The elegant wintertime gift of chestnut soup is beige in a gray bowl and garnished only with two round, green Brussels sprout leaves poking out like a shoot of green grass struggling through a snowbank.
Or take the celery root tart, not really a tart at all, but a crisp round “chip” hugging a silken puree of the vegetable in question, and studded with pink apple chips. Eating it is like deconstructing a delightful toy with opposing balance and composition. It's a joyful celebration of this dank season we’re in.
Even salsify, that baffling, unknowable veg that shows up on winter menus all the time around here, takes on new meaning.
Caramelized planks of the root are draped in slices of gjetost (a sweet, fudgy Norwegian cheese that’s a wonder unto itself) and adorned with slick, wobbly blobs of brown butter hollandaise and jewel-cut supremes of grapefruit. Just because you’re eating salsify doesn’t mean you gotta be puritanical.
As for all the veg, it comes in part as a backlash to all of the meat-centric eating of the early aughts, and a face-facts resignation that many of our best chefs have to deal with middle age. Flicker told me that 10 years ago everybody was getting drunk after work and sleeping late in the morning. “Now, everybody is going home, reading, getting up early and running. And that changes the way you eat.”
Does it ever. And if running makes salsify this great, let's lace up those shoes nice and tight.
Other things nice and tight at Esker Grove: the service, attentive and pro as this sort of cooking commands, and the room, with clean lines, low light, and modernist design that lets all (or at least most) of the art gleam from the plate. An incredible floor-to-ceiling collage piece from local artist Frank Big Bear entitled Universes Collide graces the south wall. Check it out between courses.
And it’s not all veggies, either. Clams with smoked potato, morcilla (blood sausage), and kale were like a challenging, captivating, dark aquarium -- smoke, brine, metal, vegetal. Crazy.
Or for something that plays a little “nicer,” look to the capon. There’s a rotisserie on site that they’re using to great effect, and this bird is as good as it gets, served with chestnut pain perdu (think of it as the best stuffing you’ve ever eaten) and a coy little artichoke heart peeking out at the edge like it’s flirting with the prospect of springtime.
If you’re keeping track, this is Doug Flicker’s third big act in the Twin Cities, first with Lowry Hill's late Auriga (locally grown, organic, trailblazing cuisine) then Piccolo and now this.
He’s most definitely not finished; he’s assured me that he’s “absolutely” working on another project (Esker Grove is not his own; he’s been hired to oversee the restaurant).
For each era comes a new perspective. With Flicker, that perspective is always pushy, edgy, and now.
We’re not sure what his next act will be, but we bet it looks like the future.
Esker Grove at the Walker Art Center
723 Vineland Place, Minneapolis