Good Enough

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

The large entrees can be astonishingly expensive for what you get: Shanghai Maine lobster with "Chinese risotto" cost $43, so I was especially disappointed to order it and receive generous handfuls of lobster chunks, all distinctly rubbery and overcooked, served on a soupy bed of coconut-milk rice. I found nothing risotto about it, no creamy silk, no distinct chewy grains, just soupy rice. The edges of the plate were garnished with papery leaves of fried spinach, which added no pleasant taste to the assemblage. Miso-glazed butterfish ($25) was creamy and rich, and boasted such a crackly, sweet, caramelized crust that it reminded me of a candy-apple. And while it was fully adequate, I didn't feel it went beyond that standard, and the "chili-orange noodles" that came with it had no identifiable characteristics except grease, salt, and brown.

20.21's pad Thai, with prawns, costs $24. I'll let that sink in for a minute. Got it? For your money, you get a version that is different from all the other ones in Minnesota in that it has nicer looking shrimp, and tastes overwhelmingly of sugar. I tried half a dozen other dishes at 20.21, with no greater success. Most of the time when I returned home from the restaurant, after spending hundreds of dollars, I would sit down to take notes for an hour or two and invariably come to wrestle with the single silliest critical point I have ever debated with myself: Is this place any better than Big Bowl? (Big Bowl, of course, being the very competent, mid-priced pan-Asian chain with outposts in local upscale shopping malls.)

Sometimes I would conclude that indeed, 20.21 was a little better than Big Bowl. Sometimes I would find it a little worse. In any event, I had gone into all of this thinking I'd be comparing the restaurant to places like New York's 66, or Spice Market (which we should get an outpost of next winter or spring), or Wolfgang Puck's own Spago--restaurants that unite Asian and Western traditions with inventiveness and grace--not upscale mall Chinese.

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

After much soul searching, I don't think it is wrong to expect more.

That said, I still think it is a good restaurant, and that has to do with the fact that the restaurant is, above all, well managed. Does this seem goofy? It seems a little funny to me, too. But I've found plenty of other restaurants with brilliant chefs lacking because of unacceptable front-of-the-house issues. 20.21 happens to be exactly the opposite.

The table service, as I've said, is of the highest caliber. The wine list gives obvious notice of thoughtful design: It's short, but could be the subject of a hospitality industry seminar titled, "Spice-Tolerant Superstars, as translated through all popular varietals, and mitigated by status-needs of consumer." For a beautiful red to stand up to all sorts of heat and meaty salt, try Alvaro Palacios's "Les Terrasses" ($48); for coconut curries, a Spätlese Riesling by Dr. Weins-Prüm couldn't be better chosen. Chinese chicken salad and ceviche? Well, there's one for that too: Loimer "Lois" Grüner Veltliner ($7 glass, $30 bottle). Putting together this wine list, flawlessly serving a 60-course brunch to several hundred guests, this stuff is hard to do. But in all my visits to 20.21, with the notable exception of dessert, I have yet to encounter any real animating spirit, heart, gusto, originality, frivolity, delicacy, thunder, or, in a word, art, on any plate, with any reliability.

In the end, 20.21 reminds me most of a limited-edition work on paper. Let me explain. Once a visual artist gets to be big enough, in a late stage of his career (yes, usually his), he will often find it lucrative to sell things such as lower-cost prints, or lithographs, which in the trade come under the general heading "works on paper." The artist in question rarely touches the work, except to design it and sign it, and it usually ends up on the walls of corporate conference rooms or with those too timid to risk their money on the work of unknowns. It never has the value of the work the artist was more personally involved with. It's not a commodity exactly, but it's not not, either. I suppose the great irony is that in many ways the Walker has fulfilled its mission with 20.21, by presenting a thought-provoking example of how the fine arts can help illuminate the difficulties of contemporary life.

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