The Walker's fancy new Doug Flicker restaurant, Esker Grove, is now open

The Walker is grasping that all-important "food is art' message.

The Walker is grasping that all-important "food is art' message. Photo courtesy of Esker Grove Facebook page

The Walker has long struggled to find a groove with its eating and drinking establishments.

Within the modern confines of the archetectural gem, there was first Wolfgang Puck, then D’Amico and Partners, and then Culinaire (which will still handle the catering end). All have come through to attempt to give museum-goers a refreshment and nosh when they’re peckish.

But food is art, and it’s about time the Walker sat down and thought about who could really and truly best convey that message. Doug Flicker, of acclaimed Piccolo, seems like a perfect fit. His work with jewel-like small plates, teeny tiny works of edible art, has been a constant topic of conversation and enjoyment since he started Piccolo seven years ago. Becoming the culinary artist-in-residence at our most recognizable local art space seems a natural progression.

Piccolo will close in March, and two of Flicker’s staff will take over the space. They’ve already named it Tenant, and believe it or not, it will be even smaller than Piccolo.

Meanwhile, Flicker's new Walker restaurant is now open to the public. The name refers to two geological aspects of the restaurant's setting: 'Esker' being a serpentine ridge of soil, gravel, and earth deposited by streams of meltwater left from the slow movement of glaciers over time; and "Grove" referring to the newly planted groupings of trees on the hillside, including one that encompasses the restaurant's natural outdoor seating area.

Inside, diners will find a more open space and floorplan than previous restaurant iterations that felt too tucked away and cloistered. It’s also at ground level, allowing for actual walk-in traffic, a big boon for the neighborhood between Loring Park and Lowry Hill, especially with the relatively recent shuttering of La Belle Vie.

The eating and drinking area flows naturally from art goggling to booze guzzling and food hoovering, and perhaps back again. Like the Walker itself, the space is minimalist and streamlined, marked by a vast open bar area and lots of open window space.

The menu favors vegetables and grains over animals, representing a true sea change in dining tastes. Those plant-based diets the nutritionists keep harping on seem to have some validity. Naturally, we want it done deliciously, and Flicker is just the guy to do it.

Menu items here seem less stylized than they were at Piccolo, and more ingredient-focused. Seasonality is obviously at the forefront: Opening menus showcase chestnut soup with Brussels sprouts and bone marrow, endive and farro salad with blue cheese and smoked honey, and vegetable-focused entrees like cauliflower with preserved mushrooms and puffed rice, or parsnips with caramelized goats milk and escarole.

Anyone thinking they must suffer through the winter without vegetable matter has simply not caramelized enough goat's milk or puffed enough rice in order to amp up the gnarled, knobby roots of late autumn and early winter earth.

But don’t think that meaty things won’t shine here, too. Lamb shoulder, capon, and even a lavish dry-aged New York strip with truffle can be yours for the not-outrageous pricetag of $32.

Lunch is more casual but no less devoted to meatless eating, with hummus toast, an eggplant tartine, grain bowls, and a fancy grilled cheese. But have a Deviled Ham sandwich too, if you want, with cornichon, mustard, and egg; or the omnipresent Smorgasbord. Yes, the $12 burger is there, too.

The cocktail list leans toward classics, with both “traditional” and “contemporary” versions of the martini, the Champagne cocktail, the flip, the Sazerac, and so on.

And it’s worth mentioning that Esker Grove’s opening party was the first restaurant opening that featured a tattoo giveaway. Free tats. In addition to the kitchen staff and Flicker’s wife, Amy Greely, we spotted a couple of brave takers.

Now they’ll be branded with Esker Grove’s worker bee, a simple but bold, badass design that’s as good a metaphor for the restaurant as any.  

Now open. 

723 Vineland Place, Minneapolis