For anyone who has followed the story of chef Erick Harcey’s career, a dinner at Willards in Cambridge, Minnesota, feels like the richly deserved product of years of effort and evolution. From his time at Victory 44 in North Minneapolis to the breakout effort at Parka on East Lake Street to the briefly shining high-end Linden Hills dining experience Upton 43, Harcey has been a mesmerizing culinary presence. By turns inspired, talented, sometimes undisciplined, and sometimes sublimely focused, he was and is always—much to his credit—never boring. His projects have ping-ponged throughout the Minneapolis–St. Paul metro, generating press, buzz, and innovative menus in the process.
But now, he has moved on. More specifically: he’s moved north, taking his family with him back to his hometown of Cambridge, about an hour north of the Cities.
Something about the move seems to have grounded Harcey’s sometimes riding-the-ragged-edge cuisine—Willards feels like all of the good stuff with none of the wobble. Housed in a sleek, chic, Scandinavian-inspired space shared with the 100-year-old Leader department store in downtown Cambridge, Willards serves food from breakfast through dinner. In its first 10 months of operations, it has become a community gathering place. When we’ve dined there, we’ve seen grandparents and grandkids, city folk and locals, young couples and solo diners alike, talking, sipping cocktails, and just soaking up the communal vibe in a setting dignified by easy elegance.
Although he’s backed by a formidable team, Harcey’s methods are the foundation of the restaurant. Willards builds its big flavors and elegant presentations from the ground up, pickling, grinding, compounding, and otherwise scratch-making the components of its menu and cocktail list.
If our lunch at Willards was uniformly good—tidy, tasty, reasonably priced, tastefully presented—then it’s fair to say that our recent dinner was uniformly great. The Willards Salt and Pepper Clams ($10) are a crispy, perfectly fried, gently chewy rebuke to the idea that there’s no reason to order shellfish in a Midwestern state. The clams weren’t greasy, tough, or over-breaded—they were light, tender, and absolutely compelling when dipped into the accompanying full-flavored, pickle-boosted, best-ever tartar sauce. We couldn’t stop nibbling on these despite the meal’s upcoming onslaught of food. Similarly excellent was the Nduja on Toast ($9), a skillful combination of charred Texas toast topped with the spicy, creamy, spreadable house-made sausage known as nduja, plus a flurry-like mound of finely grated smoked cheddar, pecans, and crunchy bits of grilled pears. The balance of texture and flavors in this dish couldn’t have been more carefully dialed in.
Our mains somehow lived up to the manic hype stirred up by the appetizers. The Dirty Filet ($24) was a rainbow of filet mignon slices spread across a thick piece of charred toast smeared with chicken liver pate with caramelized pickled onions and ringed with frisee. By itself, the filet was a tender but low-impact cut of meat, but with the added depth of flavor provided by the onions and pate, and the contrasting crunchy, carbon-blasted texture of the toast, it became the star of a highly entertaining culinary show. And chef Harcey’s roasted chicken is rightfully famous, so it’s heartwarming to see a Half Chicken with Wild Rice-a-Roni ($16) on the menu at Willards. Firm, crunchy pickled apple slices and warm, creamy apple butter made wonderful companions for this juicy, tender bird and it salty, texturally rich rice side dish.
At $6–10, cocktails at Willards feel priced for an outside-the-metro audience. This doesn’t, however, mean that they’re underdeveloped or light on punch. Our Bloody Mary (a mere $7 with a snit of house Pilsner custom-brewed by Iowa’s Millstream Brewing Co.!) was built entirely in-house and dates back to Harcey’s days at Victory 44. The base mix had a pleasant layered complexity that delivered heat and spiced depth without overwhelming the tomato at the heart of the drink. And our Barrel Aged Manhattan ($9) was fully stocked with a small handful of amarena cherries that gave the bourbon-based drink an earthy boost of fall flavor without getting aggressively sugary or fruity.
Dessert at Willards is definitely a “last but not least” sort of deal. Baker Tim Wallace came to Willards after a stint at Salty Tart, and his skill with dough, cream, and sugar came through full-force on the two treats we sampled. The Bourbon Apple Pie ($8, $10 à la mode) was a streusel-topped whole mini-pie, gorgeous to behold and chockablock with crunch, oatmeal chew, and mellow but not retiring warming spices. The pie’s thinly sliced apples were firm enough to hold up to the towering topping, and they popped with flavor and crunch. A Maple Pot De Créme ($8) presented itself like the world’s best butterscotch pudding, silken in texture, sweet without being cloying, and deeply flavored with a clean, simple, maple-meets-browned sugar profile. Two accompanying leaf-shaped maple-iced shortbread cookies were overkill in the best possible way.
Building a successful restaurant is no small thing, as anyone who has attempted it can attest. But creating a space where a community can gather and feast like royals is a massive achievement, even for a chef with outsized ambitions. It is, at this point, needless to say, most certainly worth the drive.