Photographs by Caitlin Abrams
Clams and a salad with cocktails at Esker Grove
Clams with kale and smoked potato, and an Esker Grove salad of shaved vegetables, with cocktails.
It’s been a banner year for historians, with the country suddenly re-arguing Reconstruction, Jim Crow, NATO, and even the food regulations put in place after Upton Sinclair’s 1906 meatpacking expose The Jungle. Oh, and if you didn’t hear, the Equal Rights Amendment has been re-introduced for ratification. Twenty-seventeen seems to be the year we might give a comic hack’s edit to that always-relevant Faulkner line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”—but this is ridiculous!
So it goes for America, and so it goes for Minneapolis restaurants, where the hot restaurant of the season is both an utter delight and a stun gun set to déjà vu. Let’s first remark upon Esker Grove’s considerable charms. Located across from the sculpture garden at the Walker Art Center, it’s one of the most beautiful dining spaces in the Cities. Glass walls let in light and air, the ceiling is an interesting intersection of planes, the bar is a composition of warm modern woods, and high-brow contemporary art—the kind you only get in museums—lines the walls. It reminds you right away that the Walker is one of the nation’s contemporary art leaders, and even just a little, dare I say, better than the rest—can you just swan in for lunch to New York’s MOMA? Not without a day put aside for it and a personal cowcatcher to plow through the tourists. But the Walker is now replete with an Isabella Rossellini-and-David Lynch-on-a-date-worthy pleasure factory open to us Minnesotans all the time.
What to get in this land of class and glass? At lunch, there’s got to be the best deviled ham sandwich in the country—just good, meaty, local diced ham tossed with lots of herbs, a garlic-touched light aioli, then crowned with fresh boiled eggs, thin slices of French cornichon, dill sprigs, and dill pollen, all of it on a plank of good bread wiped with good French mustard. To anyone used to encountering deviled ham as a paste served to those politely trapped in Lutheran church basements, this sandwich is a cognitive shock—like seeing the frog post-kiss as a fully crowned prince. Who’d have thunk it! It’s sour, rich, creamy, a wonderland of textures.
The signature Esker Grove salad is just as good. The menu advises it’s made of herbs, seaweeds, and vegetables, which sounds highly mock-able—but in fact it’s wonderful. Order it and you get an absolute carnival of different green things, some thick and succulent, others leathery and sour, yet others licorice-edged or mineral briny, all of it united by a bright and sour, peppery vinaigrette. I maintain that the hardest thing to make surprising is a green salad, and this thing wins 2017’s green salad championship until further notice.
There are some simpler options: a good, plain burger on a beautiful bun and a very lovely grilled cheese made with paper-thin apple slices, for instance. The green tea toddy was a treasure. It came as a pure white cup with an orange-flower rose in its heart. When the server poured in a blend of green tea, lemon, and honey and orange flower water, the orange peel unfurled into a ribbon before my eyes like a conjurer’s trick. The scent of orange exploded from the cup and then vanished to be replaced by great familiar comfort. That’s some tea. The cocktails, by former La Belle Vie star Jon Olson, are equally significant and playful. Do try the herbal and delicate take on a Daisy, with aquavit and velvet falernum.
At dinner, the food moves into complex territory. The chestnut soup is a golden sort of velvet, nutty, slightly sweet, and rich. It’s poured at the table into a bowl with a little disc of peppery bone marrow set prettily at the bottom. Then you drag your spoon through the gelatinous richness and find a hint of brandy and a few leaves of Brussels sprouts. It’s all so wintery and indulgent you can practically hear the sleigh bells crunching through snow. A capon is the palest, most tender chicken you can imagine, a thick chunk with crackling skin served with a slice of chestnut bread pudding and perfectly turned artichoke hearts that look like tipped-over spinning tops. A charred scallop crudo was a dimmer light, swamped as it was by its pairing with an acrid black garlic puree.
At brunch, don’t miss the hot donut bites, custard-moist and delicate, but given personality with a dipping sauce of hot curried caramel. Also, don’t miss the semolina porridge. It has a texture like a cloud and comes with the softest egg ever, cooked at 62.5 degrees for an hour and warmed to serve in a maitake mushroom tea that gilds it with a barely perceptible umami veil.
Who cooks like this? Well, of course, only a few dozen people in the country do it well. Esker Grove is by one of our best, Doug Flicker. He’s one of the chefs who brought Minneapolis into the present with his cooking at Auriga, which was five blocks up the hill from where Esker Grove is now. There’s a lot to say about Auriga, which closed in 2007. At the time it was one of the pioneers of Minneapolis’s particular style of cuisine, which is a bunch of contradictory things all together, and yet, recognizable and unique. Let’s call it “The Minneapolis Style.” It’s all about deep, local sourcing and ingredients, an equally deep interest in European trends, and a tinkerer’s familiarity with the techniques of molecular gastronomy—while remaining unfettered by gastronome rules. You’ve seen this style the past 20 years with different emphases at Travail (more madcap), La Belle Vie (more delicate), and Tilia (more Steven Brown-ish). At Auriga, it was trailblazing and lyrical.
Auriga launched further important restaurants, such as Flicker’s nationally regarded Piccolo and his happy beach hot dog stand Sandcastle. It sent other chefs into the world. Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger at the Nashville sensation The Catbird Seat, for instance. It was the first client for many farmers and foragers. And it launched line cooks nearly beyond number. T.J. Rawitzer, part of the closing crew of Auriga, went on to run a number of local restaurants, but is today reunited with Flicker at Esker Grove. Rawitzer runs the day-to-day operations with another local luminary, longtime La Belle Vie sous Brian Crouch.
“Auriga had a bohemian-meets-band- of-pirates thing going on,” Rawitzer tells me. “Everyone wanted to be there, and now everyone wants to be [at Esker Grove]. There are a bunch of really talented cooks that could work anywhere but choose to work here.” I ask why. “Obviously, you want to work with Doug, hang out with Doug.” So the band is back together, blocks from where they used to be—but they’re not in a busted-up startup kitchen anymore. Now they have all the toys of a brand-new kitchen, an awe-inspiring dining room, a first-rate staff, and more than a decade of additional cooking experience under their belts. It’s rare, but sometimes history does repeat itself—but with more ease, grace, teamwork, and delight than the first time around.