Good Enough

20.21, the Walker's hotly anticipated Wolfgang Puck restaurant, is very good in many ways, but not great

20.21 Restaurant & Bar
Walker Art Center
1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
612.253.3410
www.wolfgangpuck.com

 

One of the most difficult reviews a restaurant critic can ever write is of a restaurant that is very good, but not great. Focus on not great, and the review comes off as more negative than it should. Focus on very good, and impressions tilt the other way, leading to something publicists can spin as a rave. Difficulty, of course, wears many other hats: Another difficult review might be, for example, one of a high-profile, big-money restaurant headed by a historically important out-of-town super-chef, if that restaurant also happened to be a new attraction in one of your city's most respected and beloved cultural institutions.

The awe-inspiring brunch at 20.21 really is all things to all people
Bill Kelley
The awe-inspiring brunch at 20.21 really is all things to all people

Location Info

Map

20.21 Restaurant And Bar

1750 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403

Category: Restaurant > Asian Fusion

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

And so, I suppose, the only thing to do when you need to say something difficult and unpleasant is to just say it: 20.21, the highly anticipated Wolfgang Puck restaurant in the Walker Art Center, is good enough. Just barely. It was supposed to be great, a big-name, big-splash restaurant of national caliber, a big fish, or, the big fish, in our small pond. It's not even close.

As a critic, however, I like to review a restaurant for what it tries to do, and does well. As a caterer, serving the Walker's new, lucrative role as private-party host, it's wonderful. Just check out the $25 weekend brunch for an example of high volume, buffet-style excellence. Here, your money gets you more food than any human could possibly eat--and more than most, save Rain Man, could even count. I'm going to ballpark it in the three-score range. You begin with coffee, in elegant china, accompanied by beautiful silver creamers and sugar cubes that look like modern-art meteors fallen to earth, as well as a mimosa, Bellini, or flute of sparkling wine.

You may notice that your bubbly beautifully captures the natural light, streaming in from the window-wall-bubble which cantilevers out over Hennepin Avenue, and you may take in the white walls, open black kitchen, and striking modern wire chairs that make you feel like you're in a Helmut Newton photo shoot, except with lots more bacon.

Then, at your leisure, you get in line and storm the buffet: bagels, shimmering platters of lox, and accompaniments cut into eye-catching micro-dice, nano-squares of chive and red onion, plus finely sieved and separated egg yolk and egg white, as well as a loose herby cream cheese, brimming with fresh dill. And then things really get moving. A line of silvery buffet trays reveals ricotta-stuffed brioche French toast, puffy and tender, coated with slivered almonds, and boasting a memorable almond-paste sort of richness. Coy, bubbly blueberry pancakes. Rings of poached eggs perched on circles of mashed potato cakes that conceal little salty bursts of pastrami, the whole little island cloaked with rich béarnaise sauce. Scrambled mascarpone-and-chive eggs. Tender breakfast potatoes. Warm bread pudding. Thick, good, apple-wood smoked bacon. Huge grilled bratwurst, with buns, mustard, and all the fixings. Fruit platters with pineapple, raspberries, and so forth. Granola. Yogurt. Six or seven mini breakfast pastries, including, when I was there, bite-sized, crisp, light chocolate croissants; wee sunburst apricot Danish; adorable mini blueberry muffins; and brightly colored, very fresh zucchini bread.

Still hungry? Of course you are. So get a slice of each of the three or four full-sized cakes, replete with fancy icing and all the haute pastry chef touches. Maybe you'll see a chocolate mousse cake enrobed in a fudgy chocolate shell, each slice topped with a flamboyant chocolate triangle, or perhaps there will be a banana nut layer cake striped with impossibly rich and delicious cream cheese frosting, or a nectarine and almond paste fruit tart glistening like a televised impossibility, or a coffee buttercream cake with mocha icing that transports you to Christmas nights in Paris.

Relievedly, by the time you get back to your table, your server will have taken a few steps to make sure you don't starve: fresh from the kitchen, pastry for the table, such as an apple coffee cake ring, gooey and saturated with a buttery syrup. Also, you may order an omelet from the kitchen. To say that this buffet brunch hits it out of the park does not even begin to capture the enormity of this thing: I saw a seven-foot-tall man hustling back to his table, two plates heaped high, glowing and giggling like a six-year-old unwrapping remote-controlled cars. This is not merely a brunch for the usual suspects, this is a brunch for men. Hell, this is a brunch for linebackers with tapeworms.

Add to that the gracious service, the pretty tableware, and the prestigious location, and I think you'll see that if you really love your mother, you will make reservations for Mother's Day right this instant. What? I know it's September. Mom lives in London? Well, then auction your reservations off on eBay, and use your profits to go visit.

Similarly, the restaurant understands the specific category requirements of a business lunch, and nails them. Think about it. What is it you need from a business lunch? The aura of prestige, authority, and infallibility, which the Walker happily lends, excellent service, which 20.21 provides, and, finally, food likely to please your colleagues, be they Parisian architect or Iowa trucking magnate. 20.21 does this in spades, and the menu of plates sized to share ensures you will be collegial and like-minded, right quick.

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