Say what you want about Longfellow’s Parka, but it’s never been boring. Located in funky space shared with the Minnesota chic boutique Forage, Parka launched in early 2013 promising a bleeding edge haute cuisine spin on Midwestern comfort food. It was a concept that started strong but eventually wavered as staff changes took their toll, a trend that reached its climax early this year with the departure of Erick Harcey from the Stock and Badge collective formed to combine the powers of Dogwood Coffee, Rustica Bakery, and Harcey’s Victory 44 restaurant.
In short: Parka has presented diners with a roller coaster of innovation, inconsistency, ambition, and a value prospect that has ranged from fair to frustrating.
We sat down with Dogwood’s Greg Hoyt (above left) and new Stock & Badge food director Sam Kanson-Benanav (above right) to talk about “Parka 2.0,” a rebooted menu and philosophy that promises to anchor the spot in local food and the Longfellow neighborhood that surrounds it.
HEAVY TABLE: When Parka got rolling, it seemed like a complicated concept that started strong but wandered. What ground have you guys covered, and where are you today, with this new menu?
GREG HOYT: We lost our way, in that our gut was to do a neighborhood place that was casual, fun, and kind of quirky and not taking itself so seriously… but we started out with three meal periods, dinner being the most prominent — with servers, and pretty prep-heavy, extensive dishes that maybe were a little more provocative than what we wanted.
SAM KANSON-BENANAV: I think you hit the nail on the head when you said ‘it seemed like a complicated concept’ — it wasn’t a complicated concept, but it just complicated itself in the process. When well-executed, it [top down, molecular gastronomy influenced food] can be as good as anything, but that’s not my approach to food. I care just as much about the process and the ingredients and the sourcing of food, but I like to present it as accessibly and as relatably as possible.
That’s not just what I want to see on a plate of food, it’s what the neighborhood wants to see on a plate of food. I don’t think the over-complication of Midwestern comfort food was really doing it for the space.
HEAVY TABLE: Greg, how did Sam get involved in Parka, and the whole Stock & Badge group?
HOYT: We had to restart here in January. When we started Parka neither Dan [Anderson of Dogwood], Steve, nor I were restaurant people — Erick is a restaurant person, and he’s doing Victory on his own — but we still had a restaurant, and we needed a food person. We called Jonny [Hunter] over at Underground Food Collective and he said, “I’ve got just the guy for you, he wants to move back to St. Paul.” [Sam] won’t tell you this, but he spent a year in South America on the Amazon on a Fulbright which is pretty amazing … so he gets sourcing agronomy… We met Sam and it took about three minutes, and we said: “Let’s get going.”
HEAVY TABLE: Sam, tell us a bit more about your background.
KANSON-BENANAV: I was with Underground Food Collective for years, and that’s the kind of battle I want to fight here. Underground Food Collective was so successful vertically integrating themselves into the food scene there, and I’ve worked in all their businesses — everything from catering to barnyards, to butchery, meat processing, and charcuterie. I opened Forequarter with them and worked in the kitchen there. They source the best ingredients they can, they work with farmers in Southern Wisconsin, and they create products that are true to tradition but do require a lot of finesse and understanding of technique… without over-showing it on the plate.
HEAVY TABLE: So if you were going to distill the new menu down to a few sentences, what are you trying to do here?
KANSON-BENANAV: I think our new menu is designed to work for whatever you need it to be — half our menu is geared toward breakfast items, and you can get them all day until we close. We have items that stand alone for lunch, and then dinner items as well. This place will work for happy hour, it will work for breakfast, it will work for brunch on weekends.
HEAVY TABLE: If we can dip into some of the new food for a moment, tell us a bit about this gravlax dish. The bread is really the star of the show — incredible textural pop to it.
KANSON-BENANAV: It’s sprouts on sprouts and eggs on eggs, I like to say — the bread is a sprouted rye bread that Steve makes at Rustica. I think that bread is some of the best whole grain bread I’ve ever had in my life. It’s the centerpiece of the plate.
We cure our gravlax with aquavit and dill, citrus, sugar, and salt — soft scrambled eggs with a little smoked trout caviar to give it a little pop and smokiness, and then we have our microgreens that were actually growing in the basement of the museum [the Minneapolis Institute of Arts]. It’s pretty easy, it’s cost-effective, and it gives our chefs peace of mind to take a little 30 minute break and water the microgreens.
There are also pickled onions, pickled shallots, and pickled mustard seeds. This dish would be your really great brunch dish. I’d eat this every day — it’s healthy, it’s fun, it’s pretty straight forward.
HOYT: Sam challenged Steve to come up with this bread. It’s kind of unlocked some aspects of Steve Horton, and I think we’ll see some interesting things in the year to come…
KANSON-BENANAV: I kind of pestered him.
HOYT: But he loves it! He loves being pushed that way.
HEAVY TABLE: Sourcing seems to be really key to a lot of what you’re doing with the new menu — can you tell us about that?
KANSON-BENANAV: We are trying to source really intentionally — we are getting our whitefish from Northern Waters Smokehaus, and our smelt from Lake Superior Fish Company, we are getting our wild rice from a youth camp on the Red Lake reservation. We get our eggs from Amish farms in Wisconsin, we’ve got a cheese plate that’s all Midwestern cheese… we source intentionally and build our dishes from there.
HEAVY TABLE: I know that you’ve brought that wild rice into your vegan pancakes in an interesting way — what’s the story there?
KANSON-BENANAV: I think there’s a demand for vegan food, and I have no problem making vegan food. This is a vegan pancake made with a flax egg … and we’ve got apple butter, a cultured coconut milk, and we serve it with a granola of oats, pistachios, pepita seeds, and puffed wild rice from Red Lake… and we’ve got a cranberry-raisin agrodolce, pickled apples, and maple syrup.
HEAVY TABLE: Great contrast here between the tangy tartness of the coconut milk “yogurt” and apple butter, and then all that intense maple sweetness of the granola. On another breakfasty note, what’s the back story on your Egg in Purgatory? I tweeted about how those seemed like a wonderful play on an Israeli shakshoukah, one of my favorite breakfasts.
KANSON-BENANAV: I broke my foot a couple of years ago and spent that entire summer watching Julia Child videos. She has one on just cooking egg dishes — she does a coddled egg in marinara dish, and I was just like: “I never thought of that, and that’s an amazing dish.”
HEAVY TABLE: Getting into a little more of a lunch / dinner mode, this whitefish bruschetta is just stunning…
KANSON-BENANAV: It’s full of color, it’s playful, it’s light and easy — it’s a perfect lunch. It’s like a salad, but it’s not — it’s on Steve’s Rustica loaf. This is the whitefish from Northern Waters Smokehaus, and then pickled vegetables, pickled ramps, some chioggia beets … this dish is what I want our food to be — we’re taking fish from Lake Superior, and we’re taking local ramps, and Steve’s bread — and it’s so light and fresh. The whitefish is not very mayonnaisey, because I don’t care for that. I kind of cook by color, and I think [Parka Chef Josh Wood, below] does too.
HEAVY TABLE: It seems like some of the new food really picks up on the look and feel of the space itself.
KANSON-BENANAV: I love this space. It’s centered around a neon pink espresso machine, which makes me so happy every time I look over and see that — it’s bordered by neon lights, it’s fun, it’s colorful, it’s vibrant… and that’s what our food’s going to be, too.
Parka, 4021 E Lake St, Minneapolis, MN; 612.886.1585