Contemporary Dining at Esker Grove

Esker Grove, inside Walker Art Center, guides you outside your comfort zone.

It’s been nearly a year since Doug Flicker’s much-anticipated Esker Grove opened its doors inside the Walker Art Center, and just like the other restaurants associated with Flicker (RIP Piccolo), it quickly became synonymous with good eats in Minneapolis. It was named a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for best new restaurant, and with the help of chef de cuisine T.J. Rawitzer and bar manager Jon Olson, and executive chef/chef consultant Flicker, it’s living up to the hype.

But running a restaurant and bar inside a contemporary art museum is different than running a dining establishment on its own. With families coming through and people who might not care for the craft cocktail scene, the menu needs to be accessible, but not too accessible. Much like contemporary art.

“The first goal in my mind is not to make it accessible,” Rawitzer says about creating new dishes. “It’s not, let’s see how inaccessible I can make this, but I don’t want to dumb it down.”

“Like right off the bat, we had to make sure we had Coors Light,” Olson says. There are international travelers and people driving in from the suburbs, so the offerings had to cover the bases. The cocktail list is organized by traditional and contemporary versions of drinks. “No crazy names or anything, but more black and white, approachable. Not to overcomplicate things,” Olson says.

And that’s helped people get comfortable at the bar, he’s noticed. Since the cocktail list has drinks they’re familiar with—but with a twist, “They’re more inclined to ask the bartender … ‘What’s this ingredient?’”

Rawitzer sees the same thing on the kitchen side: “If you give people an option that’s not that far outside their comfort zone,” they’re more likely to step outside that zone, he says. “I think that’s something we’ve succeeded at. People know what a ravioli is, but what is a raviolo?” (It’s a starter on the dinner menu, of course.)

In the year since it’s been open, some of the lessons learned are obvious, like, “You can’t please everyone,” Rawitzer says. “But if anything, it’s concreted the fact that the staff you have—the people you work with—is more important than anything else,” he says. A fancy knife or expensive piece of equipment is great, but “regardless of how well-designed the menu may (or may not) be, to put out lunch, you can’t cook for 250 people by yourself.”

So he’s put a lot of energy into making sure his sous chef and the rest of his kitchen staff are all on the same page (and reading the same book) he is. Which is why he enjoys the dinner menu so much. “The food at night is more indicative of what’s happening in the museum,” he says. “If someone is going to critique to overall experience of this building, I’d want them to come at night.” The full table service creates an atmosphere more akin to finer dining. “People aren’t in a hurry. It’s really hard to cook for people in a hurry,” he says.

When it comes to what’s on the menu, there’s no formula, he says. It’s a lot of back-and-forth discussions on what they’ve seen done and what they’d like to try, and eventually that turns into a dish. In the spring, they took the skin of sturgeon they ordered, dehydrated and fried it, and discovered it came out like chicharrones, or fried pig skin. “It gets puffy like pork,” Rawitzer says. “And that was just a matter of messing around.” But that’s how great new food is discovered; much like art, it’s a matter of throwing things at the canvas—or in a fryer—and seeing what works.

At the bar, those unsure of what to order could go with what Olson calls “one of those kind of pleasant surprises,” the Contemporary Daisy. “A margarita is a fancy name for a daisy,” he says, and while they have a “traditional” version as well, this will be just one fun step out of your comfort zone. Aquavit, lime juice, falernum—“which is kind of like a lime, tiki cordial. So think that, instead of your triple sec or orange liqueur”—honey and angostura bitters. “For someone who’s kind of a margarita drinker, but then the aquavit gives it something a little extra.”  

I’ll have that order with a wall of art, Please

Walking into Esker Grove, you might notice a wall of art just outside the dining room, before you’ve even entered the museum itself. It’s called Target Project Space, sponsored by Target Corp., and curated by the Walker’s visual arts curator Siri Engberg.

Chief of marketing and strategic communications Annie Gillette Cleveland says the plan is to change the artwork one to two times a year, and it started with Project 1: Frank Big Bear. The mixed-media collage was created by Minnesota artist Frank Big Bear and aimed to capture the idea of multiple or parallel universes through imagery related to science, pop culture, history and more.

In October the space changed over to show “a grouping of politically-oriented posters by Cuban artists,” Gillette Cleveland says, as a part of Adios Utopia: Dreams and Deception in Cuban Art Since 1950. The full exhibit brings together more than 100 works by over 50 Cuban artists and runs November 11–March 18.

And in early March, again in conjunction with an exhibit, Allen Ruppersberg: Intellectual Property 1963–2018, Ruppersberg’s You & Me (2013) will be displayed in the Project Space. The work was first shown as a billboard next to New York’s High Line.
While it’s a great place to simply display art, Gillette Cleveland says, “It truly brings contemporary art and contemporary dining together.”