Good Enough

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

20.21 Restaurant & Bar
Walker Art Center
1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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