Each month, in our “Restaurant Rumble” conversation, MnMo food critics Jason DeRusha and Joy Summers review two restaurants and pick a winner.
Jason: Walker Art Center has had a rough go trying to be a dining destination. A decade ago, Wolfgang Puck’s 20.21 debuted in the building’s metallic-robot-face addition, but despite it dramatically cantilevering over Hennepin Avenue, the dining public didn’t pay it much attention. Then the Walker brought in longtime local culinary mainstay D’Amico & Partners with a concept called Gather. Once again, the food was good, but no one ever talked about it. Will hometown hero Doug Flicker, acclaimed chef behind the late, lamented Auriga and Piccolo, succeed where so many have failed?
Joy: So far, he’s off to a great start. Esker Grove has art on the walls, on the plates, and in the cocktail glasses. Its sophistication approaches pretension, but never goaded me into a permanent eye roll.
Jason: The restaurant is gorgeous: It’s located adjacent to the newly remodeled, ground-floor front entrance on Vineland Place with windows that will look out on the sculpture garden.
photos by tj turner
Joy: By day, it’s a casual place to grab a bite after touring the exhibits—perhaps the smoked sturgeon and crackers that evokes a grandmother’s afternoon snack. By night, there are swank cocktails and artful dishes for elegant occasions.
Jason: As is the trend, vegetables take center stage in Esker Grove’s most exciting dishes. Salsify, the parsnip’s suddenly hip second cousin, can be boring, but Flicker reinvents it. He caramelizes its starches to match the sweetness of the accompanying gjetost, the almost-fudge-like Norwegian cheese, then layers in brown butter hollandaise and tiny grapefruit slices. Just try to find any art on the Walker’s walls with a similar command of contrast: earthy, acidic, and fatty.
Joy: Ditto the celery root tart. The veggie is puréed to creaminess then poured into a flaky dough shell and topped with its own crispy chips.
Celery root tart
Jason: Entrées were unfortunately uneven. The cauliflower, which was served with puffed wild rice, was too al dente for me. But I can’t wait to get the spit-roasted sturgeon again: the skin perfectly crisped, the meat perfectly tender. Again, a nice execution of contrast with caramelized lemon and spicy African harissa.
Joy: I had the same experience. I was enraptured with the roasted chicken with homey bread pudding, but the clams with blood sausage and a mix of dried and cooked kale was a bland, unpleasant combination.
Jason: Desserts are still a work in progress. Their budino, often interpreted as a cross between pudding and cake, was too dry—not custardy enough for my taste. Its espresso crumble and caramel crunch were nice, but the ice cream on top was too mushy. But I loved their pavlova: a coconut meringue served with mango and passion fruit and just a hint of chili spice. That’s the challenge of artistic cooking, right? The highs can be so high, but the misses can be equally low.
Joy: For a safe bet, finish with a cocktail, ordered “traditional” or “contemporary.” The modern Golden Ratio is a fresh twist on the Manhattan that’s as classically buffed as Jon Hamm in a tux perusing The Great Gatsby. It’s really that smooth.
Esker Grove Quick Tips:
Parking: Ramp attached to the building costs $4.
Discount: Walker members get 10% off food and non-alcoholic drinks.
Patio: Come summer, hit the patio overlooking the new sculpture garden.
This month’s “Restaurant Rumble” pitted the craveable dishes and fun atmosphere of Pajarito against artful dining at Esker Grove in the Walker Art Center. Find out which restaurant Jason and Joy chose as the winner in the April 2017 issue of MnMo.
723 Vineland Pl., Minneapolis, 612-375-7542, eskergrove.com