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.)
I've eaten so many plates of rubbery marinated octopus that I'm usually wary of ordering it, but the version here sounded fascinating: Krause serves it barbecued. He tenderizes the flesh by poaching it in court bouillon before tossing it on the grill and slathering the pieces in a delicious sauce that's sweet but vinegary. The rubber factor is blessedly low, but the dish is nowhere near delectable enough to change my mind about octopus.
On the other hand, I don't know that I could eat enough plates of Esquina's beef tenderloin, one of Krause's featured entrées. It's roasted and grilled over hickory and oak and served dripping with a creamy horseradish aioli, atop a piping-hot mound of mashers made with a Spanish cow's-milk cheese. Less satisfying is the chicken entrée — though maybe I'm just spoiled by the Sofia Vergara-sized birdbreasts served at Stroud's. The roasted breast and thigh on this plate are moist but inadequately meaty. They're accessorized by a mound of chilled Tunisian potato salad, delicately seasoned with clove and nutmeg, that's more memorable than the main course. "It plays off the tapenade we serve with it," Krause told me later. It plays to win. The salty olive bits are accented by sweet green and purple grapes and a hint of saffron, a refreshing formula.
I'm a sucker for saffron, the world's most costly spice (and a seasonal one — it's the name for the vividly orange stigma of a springtime crocus), which adds luxurious notes to Krause's paella. He whips it into a sassy, sunflower-yellow aioli for the two versions: one a steel pan loaded with prawns, shrimp, clams, mussels and chorizo; the other meatless. The former is visually impressive but, for all its oceanic ambition, lifeless. I needed an extra order of that aromatic aioli to find the flavor, even in the chorizo.
Its meatless twin, though, might be the best vegetarian paella I've ever tasted. The saffron rice is thick with mushrooms, onions, peas, peppers and braised fennel. Vegetarians are generally well-served at Esquina. I love the potato-and-egg casserole — prepared with local mushrooms — that Krause calls simply a tortilla. And the kitchen crew can prepare the huevos rotas without the serrano ham.
The dessert selection is modest but inventive. "People love the two textures of the cinnamon panna cotta," server Amanda said. "It's topped with an icy pear granita." What came out of the kitchen was a wineglass filled with discreetly spiced eggless custard, blanketed with gratuitous shards of pear-flavored ice. I scooped the fancy snow-cone shavings out of the glass and onto a bread plate before giving up in frustration. Too inventive.
Later this spring, Krause plans to add half-sized desserts to the menu, but I can't imagine anything smaller than Esquina's dense chocolate terrine, which isn't much bigger than a dental-floss dispenser. It wins on taste, though — it's a terrific finale, rich and fudgy and topped with a fluffy froth of Chantilly cream with a tiny silver pitcher of warm chocolate sauce on the side. It is but a hint of a dessert, and all the more distinct for it.
This second incarnation of Esquina is a vast improvement over its predecessor, and Krause is already thinking about the restaurant's third act.
"Sometimes I don't want to just make a menu change," he told me. "Sometimes I just want to gut the place and start over."
I'm certainly intrigued to see where Krause's restlessness takes him — and his diners — next. But let me enjoy Esquina for a little while, as it is right now.