Robert Krause likes change. The chef and restaurateur is a restless soul, he says, and that restlessness makes him consider drastic moves. "If I could, I'd change the menu every two weeks," he told me recently. He was referring, in particular, to Esquina, the restaurant that he opened two years ago with his wife, Molly Krause, and two investors. Esquina — Spanish for "corner" — started life as a "Nuevo Latino" taqueria in a former drugstore space at the corner of Eighth Street and Massachusetts, serving eight featured tacos, a hearty pozole, Cuban red beans and rice, and coconut rice pudding.
Eight weeks ago, Robert Krause not only changed the menu and the décor of the restaurant but also gave Esquina a total personality overhaul. It's no longer a taqueria where customers order at a counter. A few people still wander in, hoping to find a calabaza taco (a pumpkin-and-butternut-squash puree with grilled zucchini and goat-cheese cream), but Krause has moved on to a new, more elaborate version of the Spanish-inspired menu that he introduced in February.
"I realized that this location and this concept needed a different kind of menu and a different kind of food service than we were offering," he told me. "I had envisioned Esquina as a casual taqueria serving creative dishes, but our customers wanted something different."
Krause even thought about tweaking the name of the venue ("I wanted to keep a Spanish flair") but ultimately balked. He has changed almost everything else, though. For one thing, he has added sleek, comfortable booths that came from a failed restaurant in Kansas City, Kansas (the short-lived Hash House A Go Go in the Legends complex). The corner storefront still lets in plenty of sun during the day, and the lighting at night is so soothing and romantic that Esquina may have the best-lighted dining room in the metro: You look good under those amber dome fixtures — and you can still see what you're eating.
Krause prefers the bare bulbs hanging in the back of the room: 50-year-old, 1,000-watt bulbs over a row of banquettes. The illumination over there suggests a sexy date in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory.
Most important, the counter service has been abandoned. I'm long on the record as one who detests having to order at a counter before being seated, but I used to especially dread the experience here. I found the staffers behind the Esquina counter a particularly smirky bunch. Consider my complaint now dropped. The svelte waitresses at the new, Mediterranean-style Esquina are attentive and patient (and lovely). The elegant Amanda proved to be an articulate advocate for every dish on the menu one recent evening. I don't think she was right about everything she recommended, but she was on the money for most of them.
Krause's April menu adds more dishes than have been subtracted. Some heavier winter choices — a braised-pork-shoulder stew is one — are gone, as are the fried oysters that I first tried in February. Compared with the latter, I think I prefer this menu's slender spikes of battered, fried eggplant, arranged like thick pencils in a water glass and served with a dollop of bittersweet-colored romesco sauce (a smooth paste of tomatoes, red peppers, onions, garlic, almonds and olive oil).
The same sauce comes with a trio of fried artichokes, cleverly battered in a way that makes the tasty thistle look more like a snazzy little lamb chop than a vegetable. (There is a real lamb starter, two-bite "lollies" of roasted lamb seasoned with chiles, cumin, cinnamon and paprika. It takes brave unselfconsciousness or a strong inner child to order a dish so named; either way, I don't regret being unable to do it.)