One of my least-esteemed restaurants has morphed into one of my new favorites. I love it when that happens.
I’m talking about Walker Art Center’s Esker Grove. On my initial couple of visits, the menu was as out-there (OK, downright peculiar) as some of the nearby art. The Walker’s all about innovation — I get it — but when it comes to dining, that original near-naked head of cauliflower entree, or the parsnip number, well … I’m betting they wasn’t among the best-sellers.
Fast forward to a recent steamy summer evening.
While sitting in the sunlit space, I watched folks in jogging shorts receive a hearty welcome. Thus the operation sends a message that this is not just a site for VIPs in silk cravats. Throughout the evening we experienced some of the sweetest, most accomplished service on the planet. And these days it has food to match.
And wine. We discovered an unfamiliar pinot grigio from Slovenia bearing a pinky-orange glow that matched the sunset jut beyond the glass façade, uniting diners with the sculpture garden. With it, we nibbled on crisp-coated arancini — Italian rice balls customized with mushrooms, rich and nutty Comte cheese and a flourish of watercress.
Another star of the “snack” menu section ($8–$15) was the elegantly velvety duck-liver mousse under its translucent jellied bonnet. It’s served with pickled red onions and grainy mustard — sharp flavors to accent and rein in the luxe richness — along with batons of buttery, gently-toasted bread. It’s portioned generously enough for sharing.
Turning to the “starter” section of the list ($9–$13, mostly salads), we voted for the peach and avocado pairing. Off-center? You bet, and does it ever work. Cool, creamy avo slices are wedded to sweet segments of warm peaches, scattered atop a fringe of arugula and scattering of toasted pepita seeds: summer on a plate. Or shoot for the equally inventive apple and kohlrabi duo. Or the Esker Grove number: herbs, seaweed, veggies.
Next, we ordered a couple of items from the “mids” menu ($12–$18) — the crab flan and the semolina gnocchi — but, sensing we’d gone overboard, our server allowed us to cancel one (the flan).
However, the gnocchi nuggets — gently sautéed after their bath in boiling water — proved disappointing. Subbing semolina for the usual potato, the breadier texture proved OK but not compelling. The nuggets were tossed with miniscule snippets of white asparagus (we had to hunt for them) adding little flavor or color interest. They were joined by bitty sequins of black truffle and a dusting of Parmesan. No sauce, as we noted (nicely) to our waiter, to bind, salve and unite the composition. (He unnecessarily but most kindly removed the item from our bill.)
From among the five entrees (beets, $21, to lamb, $32) we selected the scallops, $24. A sweet, nubile quartet arrived gently, perfectly seared, ready to mingle with snippets of cauliflower and a smooth, creamy cauliflower puree — all brought to life by the subtly salty kick of pancetta. Trumpet mushroom completed the presentation but failed to play well with others — more woody texture here than taste.
Sorry, couldn’t manage dessert ($8–$11). The list favors genius twists on generic sweets like panna cotta (sweet corn, blueberries, basil), tres leches (chocolate, salted caramel) and such. Next time.
And there will be a next time, now that I’m newly smitten by Esker Grove.
723 Vineland Place