Parka as the über-Minnesota restaurant
The first time I scanned the menu at Parka, the words goulash, meatloaf, and broccoli salad had me worried: Had Grandma Hutton barreled up to the Cities in her big ol‘ Lincoln, eight-track blaring, and opened a restaurant without telling me? What else could explain the exceedingly rare menu appearance of cranberry jello salad, Grandma’s annual contribution to the Thanksgiving spread?
What arrived at my table looked nothing like my family’s Cool Whip–enhanced, mini-marshmallow-studded ambrosia, however. In its place was house-made cranberry gelatin paired with pineapple, apple, celery, pecan, and savory, tangy goat cheese. At first bite, I breathed a sigh of relief: just because Grandma’s still good for a little line dancing doesn’t mean I want her running a commercial kitchen.
At Parka, which occupies part of a bright and bustling storefront on East Lake Street in Minneapolis, executive chef Erick Harcey has raided his own grandma’s recipe box to put a contemporary spin on old-fashioned Midwestern home cooking. In fact, the whole enterprise was founded on the idea of taking a proven concept and turning it into something fresh.
Make that three proven concepts: Dogwood coffee, Rustica bakery, and the north-side restaurant Victory 44, which combined forces to create Parka. Dogwood, if you’re not familiar, was Minneapolis’s wake-up call to third-wave coffee. Its roasters selected single-source beans for the baristas to brew in funky contraptions, including one that looked like a miniature chemistry lab. Coffee was no longer a flat, black tone. It was bright and fruity, smoky or vegetal, with wine-like flavor complexity. Across the state, cups of watery, church-basement brew were left rattling in their saucers.
And then there’s Rustica, one of the Cities’ best bakeries, known for its baguettes, Breton butter cake, and what has come to be known, in my household, at least, as the World’s Greatest Living Cookie. These midnight-black discs taste as if an entire solar system’s worth of bittersweet chocolate collapsed onto itself. Who knew a mortal oven could achieve such a feat?
Harcey, co-owner of Victory 44, was a local pioneer in the sort of playful, approachable, chef-driven cuisine that thrives at places like Borough and Travail. Victory made a name for itself with fancy pub fare, including house-made potato chips and crème fraîche “dip,” and introduced the idea, at least locally, of cooks doubling as servers.
Dogwood had previously collaborated with both Rustica and Victory 44, but Parka is the first project to unite all three. The new restaurant offers Harcey a chance not to clone Victory, but to wax nostalgic. “Where would I want to go out to eat if I were going out as a chef?” Harcey asks rhetorically. “I don’t want to eat foie gras and caviar. I’m around that all day.” So he sticks to the basics, elevated from their humble roots. His secret lies in subtle deviations, deploying ingredient and technique tweaks that aren’t in the average home cook’s arsenal.
The uncomplicated comforts that Harcey grew up with take on new dimensions at Parka. Certainly he was the first among his family to serve chicken-wild-rice soup with a marshmallow floating on top, melting to subtly sweeten the broth. Broccoli salad incorporates its close cousins, roasted broccoli raab and blanched broccolini, along with the usual raisins and bacon. As a mayonnaise substitute, there’s house-made aioli, infused with broccoli stems. But the key to the dish is its shards of sunflower brittle, an innovative way to add sweetness and crunch.
Harcey’s gourmet-Grandma approach applies to nearly all of Parka’s snacks. Rabbit meatballs have been plucked from the red-sauce realm entirely, tucked into Rustica rolls with apricot mostarda and pistachio aioli. Smoked whitefish comes dressed with acidic yuzu and briny tobiko. Fried chicken livers offer an earthy minerality countered by the smoky/sweet flavors of bacon and maple syrup. Paired with Harcey’s buttery black-walnut shortbread, a crumbly counterpoint to the usual crostini, they’re absolutely irresistible. I felt the same way about his mash-up of two lowbrow faves: ham/cream cheese/pickle roll-ups and tater tots. The result is a refined croquette served with dill gel and truffle-cream-cheese foam.
To create his entrée list, Harcey tweaked recipes for his mom’s meatloaf and grandma’s goulash—which didn’t call for beef cheeks, freeze-dried corn, or cheddar-cheese mousse. Mom’s beef/pork loaf is rich with ricotta cheese, sliced for sandwiches, served with fries, and topped with the last thing you’d find in Grandma’s pantry: powdered duck fat. We devoured the skin-on potatoes so fast that the fluffy white stuff floated all over the table then stuck to our clothes. Judging from the telltale puffs scattered across the floor, others were just as eager.
Harcey has a knack for deconstructing classic dishes to enhance their best aspects and pare away the rest. The fish fry is encased in an ultra-light, tempura-like wrapper and cleverly paired with pineapple and roasted cucumber, two garnishes you’d never see at an old-school supper club. The pot roast is braised for 24 hours, separated from fat and sinew, and reformed into neat cubes that would look more at home in a modern-art museum than a Crock-Pot. In Harcey’s hands, the pork chop meets a similar fate. The meat is pulled off the bone, turned into sausage, then returned to its commonly recognized shape. The hand-formed “chops” are wrapped in caul fat and cooked sous vide before being seared in butter: triple protection against drying out. Only the too-tough spare ribs, rubbed with root-beer spices, didn’t win me over. An interesting idea—a riff on cola-braised meat—but the spices seemed as odd as the cloying, kugel-like vermicelli pudding served on the side.
Sweetness plays better in Parka’s homey desserts, including deconstructed banana-cream pie and a more easily sharable plate of cookies and bars. The assortment comes with a flight of local milk, as if to remind adults that it’s as legitimate a beverage for them as their offspring.
Broadly, Parka taps into the current culinary zeitgeist: food as intellectual stimulation and conversation starter. As diners seek more adventurous, unexpected culinary experiences, restaurants provide on-plate entertainment that diners previously sought from the big screen and the stage. Dinner-and-dinner is the new dinner-and-a-show.
Parka diners seeking even more diversion can supplement their meal with a little shopping at the adjacent Forage Modern Workshop show room. The hip home store not only shares a space with the restaurant, but also a handcrafted, Midwestern aesthetic. The collaborative restaurant/retail business model already seems to be working well. Perhaps too much so, at least in my experience, as I went in for lunch and left with a bedroom set.
THE PERFECT DISH
Harcey upgrades the classic apple cobbler by adding apple butter and dehydrated apple chips. Knowing that apple-pie lovers tend to fall into two camps—those who take theirs with ice cream and those who add a slice of sharp cheddar—Harcey combined the two with a scoop of house-made cheddar ice cream. It’s comfort food taken out of its comfort zone.
Dogwood coffee, Rustica bakery, and Victory 44 combine forces to create a Grandmas-Gone-Wild café.
Ideal Meal: Share the broccoli salad, ham-and-pickle tots, and pot roast, plus a bowl of the rice pudding
or apple cobbler.
Tip: Harcey also helped design a terrific new food menu for Rustica.
Hours: The kitchen is open Tues.–Sun., 11 a.m.–3 p.m.; 5 p.m.–10 p.m. Coffee and baked goods available
7 a.m. (8 a.m. Sat.–Sun.) to 10 p.m.
Prices: Starters $8–$10; entrées $11–$14
4021 E. Lake St., Mpls.