Parka in Longfellow, Minneapolis
Not too long ago, things were looking pretty bleak in Longfellow. The much-lamented closing of Town Talk Diner in Jan. 2011 (on the heels of the departure of Manny’s Tortas in 2009) dealt hammer blows to a neighborhood with few places to eat, many of which were (and still are) dearly priced mediocrities or grungy Chinese joints.
Then: the revolution. Peace Coffee opened its doors in 2010 and began providing locally roasted coffee and a classic coffeehouse atmosphere. Harriet Brewing got started in 2011 and became an anchor for craft beer and live entertainment. The mediocre Glaciers became the happily rehabilitated Mosaic Cafe in 2012.
And just this month, two more points of light: the Minneapolis wing of The Blue Door Pub, and Parka, a nexus of talent including top-flight coffee roasters (Greg Hoyt and Dan Anderson of Dogwood), chefs (Erick Harcey of Victory 44), and bakers (Steve Horton of Rustica); if you’re curious, Stephanie March explains Parka’s parent company, Stock and Badge, right over here.
That all these wunderkinder are sharing space with a smart new furniture and home furnishings boutique called Forage Modern Workshop (above, left side of photo) is a puzzler for would-be guests. Is Parka (above, right side of photo) a coffee shop? A restaurant? Casual? Upscale? Yes to all — despite being such a little place, it needs access to a pile of masks to accommodate all of its ambitions.
We’ll briefly dispense with the coffee and baked goods by saying that they’re good — reliable, on point, modern, well executed, and worth enjoying. On to the food.
What’s most notable about Parka is how its various dishes look familiar on the menu, stun and delight you with tricks and surprises after they arrive on the table, and then — after all the razzle-dazzle — lead you to somewhere warm, comforting, and familiar.
Case in point: chicken and wild rice soup ($8). In theory, a dish we all know (and generally love). And on the palate, Parka’s version hits all the right notes. It’s rich, luscious, warm, familiar, and comforting, with enough flavor and texture contrast to keep it interesting. But the road you take to get there is strange indeed: It involves a ceramic chicken barfing broth into your Christmas ornament-like hemispherical glass bowl. There it splashes around among both the expected (chicken) and the novel (a popped wild rice-studded homemade marshmallow, which, rest assured, is sweet without clashing with the dish as a whole). It’s a wild ride to a familiar destination, with the deep spice flavor of ras el hanout riding shotgun and a king oyster mushroom in the driver’s seat.
Equally pleasant and bewildering is the restaurant’s cranberry “Jello” salad ($8). You know this dish from countless Thanksgivings. And the flavors are all there: There’s a rich creaminess (in this case, chevre mousse, not Cool Whip) amongst the tangy-sweet gelatinous cranberry, offset by the gentle vegetal flavor of celery and the crunch of apples and pecan. And then there are wafers of chevre meringue, hard and flat like little river stones. And they’re delicious, and they make sense, and yet they’re strange little artifacts in this context, and that’s alarming and it’s also awesome.
I traded emails with Parka chef Chris Olson about the dish, and got the following in response: “Erick designed the jello salad (and the rest of the menu) to taste like Minnesota cooking. You know, like mom made if your mom was Minnesotan. The jello is cranberry thickened with agar agar; celery and apples are compressed with Aleppo pepper and ginger syrup, respectively. Goat cheese takes two forms, meringue and mousse. Of course, there’s pecan soil too.”
While the starters tend toward the wild and wonderful, the main dishes are slightly more sedate. Mom’s Meatloaf Sandwich ($14) with bacon-tomato relish and cheddar, on a Rustica roll, was comfort on a bun. The Wisconsin-shaped cutting board / serving plate was a nice added touch.
Two things tend to go wrong with a dish like this: salt level (often greatly over-salted; our sandwich arrived with just the right dose) and bun, either because it’s tough and gigantic, or because it falls apart under the slimy assault of the meatloaf and toppings.
No and no — the Rustica bun held up the structural part of the bargain and tasted fine in the process. It’s an added bonus that the sandwich comes with first-rate French fries, with crisp exteriors and big, full, potato-y interiors that work well with the (thank you, Parka) regular old unpretentious ketchup that comes on the side. The little white puffs of dehydrated duck fat that come with the fries don’t taste like much, but they don’t do any damage, either.
We were less in love with the fish fry ($12), which features big bland pieces of cod fried up tempura style and served with pineapple bits, cucumber, dill, jalapeño slices, and aioli. The texture of the batter was perfect (and it was grease free, to boot), but neither it nor the fish provided much in the flavor department, which meant a constant effort to mine taste from the little dots and pools scattered across the plate.
Goulash ($11) by contrast was just what you might expect — impossibly tender cubes of braised beef hanging out amongst tomato, corn, and macaroni. It would be good in any setting, but on a cold night it was the perfect remedy.
We quite liked Parka’s Banana Cream Pie ($8) which features caramelized bananas and a smear of banana pastry filling, with whipped cream, a dusting of chocolate, and a citrus-inflected spike of something on the pastry piece (could it have been pineapple?). The pie wasn’t overly sweet, and the subtle play of flavors and textures made this a thinking dude’s (or lady’s) dessert. Not that there is anything wrong with that; not all meal-enders need to be a bullet of fudge to the central cortex.
Service at Parka was pleasant, and execution on dishes was strong, neat, and consistent (hat tip here to Chris Olson, who did equally fine work opening Moto-i and assisting with the launch of Masu). [Editor’s note: Chris Olson was let go from Parka on Feb. 12, 2013.] The dishes Parka serves are ambitious, and it’s nice that they both require and receive talent able to render things like the delicate tempura-style fry on fish, and the fine knife work that lends many of its dishes their textural and visual pop.
If Parka faces any challenges in the future — and it’s not clear that it does — they are likely to come in one of two forms. The first, a core neighborhood clientele that, after the fourth round of vomiting ceramic chickens, would appreciate something a little simpler and more akin to Campbell’s. The second, the envy-inspiring Travail or Tilia problem: long lines and high demand for clever, well-executed food that delivers time and time again.
Coffee shop and Bistro in Longfellow
4021 E Lake St
Minneapolis, MN 55406
OWNER / CHEF: Stock and Badge / Erick Harcey
Kitchen Open Tue-Sun 11am-3pm and 5pm-10pm
Coffee Shop Open:
BAR: Beer + Wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $11-16