Good Enough

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

Who will you be having lunch with today? Someone for whom sticky, sweet maltose and honey-glazed pork ribs ($9) would be a treat? Then you can gnaw down the bones together, enjoying the tender meat and interspersing it with bites of the accompanying spicy, kimcheelike leaves of pickled cabbage. Or perhaps your date is more genteel, and the two of you can start with one of the restaurant's signature dishes, like the Chinese chicken salad ($10), a sugary concoction with plenty of crispy fried wonton bits and cashews.

Entrees to share cover similar ground. A "Szechuan style" marinated flatiron steak ($19) isn't particularly tingling and Szechuan, but is in fact a big crowd-pleaser: a large, lean, boneless steak sliced thinly for table service, accompanied by a stir-fried mélange of snow peas, shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, and scallions. The sweet, sweet Thai red curry, with scallops, a few bits of real Atlantic lobster, shrimp, and medallions of sea bass ($18), has its sugar given some definition with a few licorice-accented basil leaves and a hint of chili fire. I didn't encounter any breathtaking savory food at 20.21's lunch, but my feelings about a business lunch are that the "business" takes precedent over the "lunch," and good enough, with first-rate service, is truly good enough.

Desserts, however, are as if from another restaurant entirely. Sweets, by pastry chef Sherri Yard and pastry chef de cuisine Khanh Tran, the Restaurant Levain veteran, are--at lunch, at brunch, at dinner-- always a joy. I particularly recommend their cookie plate of a dozen miniature delicacies, including tiny shortbreads, buttons of coconut macaroon, light little lemony icebox cookies, and itty-bitty ice cream sandwiches made with intense little almond cookies; the whole thing is as nice to encounter as a bunch of butterflies on a blooming rosebush.

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)

Yard's sculpture of a chocolate mousse served in a chocolate box surrounded by cherry sauce and topped with a little chocolate spoon replete with a bright marzipan cherry--tribute to the sculpture garden's Spoonbridge and Cherry--is whimsical, adorable, and richly chocolatey, an unbeatable combination.

Even when the desserts fail--such as in the "brushstrokes," a strange, sour, semi-liquid concoction of meringue, sorbet, and huckleberry sauce decorated with white chocolate stick-sculptures--they fail in a nice, chefly way, because they are trying something difficult and original. When they succeed, they succeed to the same higher standard. The pineapple financier, for instance, is marvelous. It's not unlike the classic pineapple upside-down cake, but here instead of one slice of cake you get a trio of small, individual brown butter tarts. Two miniature, dense ones are topped with a perky house-made sorbet, sometimes lychee, sometimes pineapple or passion fruit, while the larger, lighter tart is topped with a twice-roasted section of fresh caramelized pineapple, upon which sits homemade vanilla ice cream and an exclamation point of a curlicue cookie. The butter and richness of the cake and ice cream, the fruit and roasty sweetness of the pineapple, and the zing of crisp sorbet all combine to make every bite lively and fascinating. "They look like scrubbing bubbles and I love them," concluded a friend of mine one evening. I had to agree. These are destination desserts, worthy of a trip across town for sweet-toothed pilgrims.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said of 20.21's dinners. While it's possible to ferret out a few nice items from the menu, most of what emerges from the kitchen is heavy, overly salty, overly sugary, or all three. Again, let's start with the positives. One night the kitchen sent out a tiny little demitasse cup of curried corn soup, and it was phenomenal. The curry gave just enough smoke and edge to the fresh sweet corn to throw the sweet, rich aspects of summer harvest into relief, and the salt and heat of the blend made the essence of summer corn so new and fragile that it seemed to shake on its new legs. Captivating.

Cold smoked salmon on sweet corn blini was fresh and forthright ($12). The classic beet and goat cheese salad ($11), done here to resemble four piles of checkers, made of discs of roasted beet, little snowballs of fresh goat cheese, a toasted walnut, little cut-outs of green apple, whiskers of baby arugula, and a crowning hat of a crinkly dried-beet wafer, was carefully prepared and technically adept.

It was hard to believe they came from the same kitchen as the usual 20.21 dinner disappointments. Take their spinach risotto, with Maine sweet shrimp, chanterelle mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese. Spend 16 bucks on this baby and you get what I would describe as green goop and brown bits: The green part is cheesy rice, in which it's nearly impossible to taste the expensive, cheese-overwhelmed shrimp, and the brown bits were, when I had them, hard, butter-soaked mushrooms. The crispy lobster-and-pork spring rolls ($9) are filled with a leaden mixture that tastes like soy sauce-saturated ground pork. I could visually identify some lobster; I just couldn't taste it in its salty, heavy, fried pork log.

When I had it, the marinated Japanese hamachi appetizer ($14) had been sitting with its pickled endive-onion salad for so long the fish became completely acidified and rubbery. The tuna sashimi and tartare salad ($15) had two parts: tasteless petals of grainy, ruby red tuna spread with wasabi, and a sugary, salty chopped tuna-avocado mush.

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