Using the Lutheran potluck as inspiration for a restaurant almost sounds like the punch line of an Ole and Lena joke.
But Parka, the playful and promising collaboration involving Victory 44, Rustica and Dogwood Coffee, doesn’t stick to that tired script. Instead, chef Erick Harcey taps into the winning essence of church-basement traditions and then, with an assist from chef de cuisine Jen Farni, shrewdly channels them into modern, frequently delicious cooking.
Who will ever look at Tater Tots, that hot dish staple, the same after Harcey re-imagines them with chopped ham and cornichons, breading them with panko and gingerly frying them to delicate, piping-hot crispiness? Certainly not yours truly.
Having been burger-ed into near-catatonia, Harcey finds refuge, with his equally burger-weary customers, in a meatloaf sandwich, a blend of pork, beef, oats and milk-soaked breadcrumbs that’s cooked slowly, thickly sliced and stacked on a luxuriously tender brioche bun. It’s fantastic, and made only better with spot-on garnishes: pert icebox pickles, tangy cheddar and a hearty bacon-laced tomato relish.
Attention must be paid to the onion rings. The menu bills them as the “best ever,” and it’s no exaggeration. Good Lord, they’re good, the sweet onions soaked in buttermilk to soften them into pliant silkiness, then a beer-fortified tempura batter robes them in a tantalizingly crispy coating.
Yes, there’s plenty to love here, which is no surprise given Harcey’s impressive track record at Victory 44. He’s especially adept at salads, confidently nudging color, texture and flavor boundaries in beguiling directions; each one improves upon its predecessor.
The dreaded broccoli salad, the scourge of Luther League picnics everywhere, is born anew as a weave of slightly bitter roasted rapini and chewy blanched broccolini, splashed with a fragrant toasted black sesame dressing and finished with crunchy bits of sweet-savory sunflower brittle. The nuances of crumbled goat’s cheese and roasted grapes seem to blossom when sharing a plate with both fried and fresh kale.
For all of the highs, it’s not uncommon to encounter jarring potholes. A shrimp-crab cabbage roll was undermined by fishy seafood. There’s much to admire about the modern-day blue-plate special that is the open-faced hot beef sandwich (dreamy brown butter-laced mashed potatoes, for starters). But the dish’s most lasting impression was the less-than-lukewarm temperature.
Execution issues aside, it sometimes it feels as if Harcey & Co. are trying too hard on the innovation front. It’s as if they’ve binge-watched an entire season of PBS’ “The Mind of a Chef,” then jumped, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen, eager to utterly transform comfort food as we know it.
The overthought, overwrought desserts are the most egregious forays into overkill. With two happy exceptions, starting with the wisp of a bakery case. It’s a platform for a greatest-hits selection of Rustica goodies, including the bakery’s cruelly addictive bittersweet chocolate cookies and elegant cherry frangipane. More, please.
The good news is that Harcey is steering Parka’s ever-evolving format in the right direction. He has prudently pared the menu, dropping a number of clunkers while simultaneously beefing up such brunch-appropriate dishes as his own take on French toast, eggs Benedict and biscuits and gravy. Later appetites are served by those gorgeous salads and a handful of terrific sandwiches, all prepared on superb Rustica bread, of course.
⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Where: 4021 E. Lake St., Mpls. 612-886-1585; www.parkampls.com.
Recommended: Broccoli salad, kale salad, carrot tartare, onion rings, meatloaf sandwich, fried chicken, cookies and bars.