Safe as Banks
B.A.N.K., 88 S. Sixth St., Minneapolis, 612.656.3255, www.bankmpls.com
When I first graduated from college I worked as a temp downtown, and like any sensible temp, made sure that all my errands were conducted at a most leisurely pace. So I would often pause in the skyway above the Farmers and Mechanics Bank and goggle at the grand lobby: the acres of burnished teak, the grand, muscular friezes, the general air of Diego Rivera meets Thomas Hart Benton by way of a lot of protein shakes at the gym.
The place seemed to me, along with the Foshay Tower, to be Minneapolis's Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center, our rare examples of architecture from a time when American design was strong, but, because of the Depression, American building was rare. The lobby of the Farmers is such an exquisite temple of sensual machine-age luxury that just pausing in the skyway above it would make my young temp's heart beat faster, then slower, in the way that natural wonders will.
Of course, times change. The old Farmers and Mechanics Bank was recently transformed into a Westin Hotel, and the old grand lobby has been turned into a reception area, bar, and a restaurant, B.A.N.K. The good news is that the new owners left the magnificent lobby essentially unchanged: The awe-inspiring teak, the friezes, the chunky sculptural glass panels, the cathedral-height ceilings, the connection to our grand civic heritage of workers' pride and workers' dreams, all of it remains for us, our children, our children's children. That is no small feat in a city that has a gruesome past of trashing our common architectural heritage as if it were last week's food on a stick. So, if you've got a granddaughter, consider the time ripe to take her downtown, buy her a burger, and unspool all the secrets you aren't going to take with you to the grave. You will never find a more momentous, stately, or impressive frame for your tale.
However, if you don't have Minneapolis memories to recount, I'm sad to say that B.A.N.K. will do little to help you create happy new ones. The restaurant the Westin has given us is safe, pleasant, good, but never great; it's a Midwestern hotel restaurant with the emphasis on Midwestern hotel restaurant. And I'd hoped for so much more.
If you really like American restaurant staples, you'll find plenty that's good enough about the food at B.A.N.K. The chef, Todd Stein, seems to have a particular flair for making the most basic American restaurant classics appealing. A roast tomato soup ($6) with little grilled-cheese sticks, for instance, was the best thing I had at this grand restaurant; the soup was roasty, tangy, and rich; the little grilled-cheese sticks, made with creamy fontina cheese, were a perfect room-service sort of comfort.
A Caesar salad ($7) was described on the menu in a way that I initially thought was a typo, as having "variable garnish"; however, when I received it I found that the variable is your own individual whim—order this thing and you receive a pile of nicely garlic-dressed romaine and croutons surrounded with a row of flat spoons each holding capers, bacon bits, minced marinated onion, grated egg, and minced anchovy, allowing you to add as much or as little of each as you want. The deviled eggs ($6) are pretty little treats—halved eggs filled with a creamier version of themselves and topped with a bit of sturgeon or flying-fish caviar. They're everything a deviled egg should be: lush, luxurious, and fun.
In keeping with the great American restaurant classics theme, B.A.N.K. does good work with beef and salmon. A light and elegant salmon fillet ($14 at lunch, $18 at dinner), served with spears of young asparagus, grilled ramps, trumpet royale mushrooms, and a parsley salsa verde, is elegantly prepared, with the herbal greens elegantly accenting the creamy fish. At dinner, the ribeye steak ($32) is good: just a decent cut of meat, seared hard till it gets a nice crust, paired with a simple heap of garlic-touched fresh spinach. At lunch, the Kobe beef burger ($12) is the safest bet. It's made with rosy, salty beef gilded with aged cheddar, a few slices of bacon, and an oven-roasted tomato. Too bad the fries that come with it, all three times I had them, were starchy and limp. And that's about it.
The rest of B.A.N.K.'s food ran the gamut from workmanlike and pedestrian to lackluster and disappointing. The lobster croquettes ($9), which I also tried three times, are really no more than rice balls, with the scantest lobster flavor hidden within overwhelmingly buttery risotto spheres. The five-spice duck breast ($13) is inadequate in several ways; first, the duck itself is strangely flavorless, so wan and lifeless that it could be anything—pork, chicken, tofu, clothing, who knows. As if to compensate for this quackless duck, the kitchen dusts it with acrid-tasting five-spice powder and swamps the plate with a piercingly sweet and salty "soy caramel" sauce that obliterates your ability to taste anything.
Sea scallops ($12) were not of sufficient quality to be served as rare as they were, and I thought the gelatinous blobs tasted like gelled preserving chemicals. Many of the dinner entrees at B.A.N.K. shared the same strange flavorlessness as the lobster croquettes and the duck breast: The chili- and fennel-rubbed Amish chicken ($17) was dry as dust, and about as tasty. The spit-roasted Berkshire pork ($22) with apple-braised pork belly, poached leeks, and Chinese long beans, tasted like something that had been on a buffet line too long—each element was overcooked, oversweet, and indistinct from everything else on the plate.
The walleye ($28) was one dish that almost achieved something: Crisp, expertly seared fillets of fish were paired with tender morsels of butter-poached lobster, fennel, and sugar snap peas—it was all sweet, warm, and buttery, and if it had only had another note, perhaps of spice, perhaps of sour, it might have gone somewhere. Am I grasping at straws? Certainly. I believe in architecture! I believe in Minneapolis! Someone, please, help.
Or, if you can't help me, help the lamb sandwich. At lunch, this braised lamb sandwich ($12) is coughingly dry, with a little bit of lamb lost within the dry depths of a ciabatta roll. The pulled Amish chicken sandwich ($11) with fresh mozzarella and oven-dried tomatoes was as sweet as any typical sandwich plucked from an office catering platter; tauntingly, it came with a delicious-looking pile of fresh potato chips that tasted nothing but brown and burnt. If none of that appeals to you, don't seek solace in "Ma's tossed egg noodles" ($14 at lunch or dinner), a peculiar thing that looks like egg noodle pho served without the broth but with a lot of grape tomatoes, and tastes about as good as that sounds.
Even the desserts at B.A.N.K. left me yearning for flavor. The restaurant's signature dessert is a tray of shot glasses filled with various tiny portions of dessert, each priced at $2.50. So, you consult the tray and pull off various shot glasses containing nectarine-topped panna cotta, chocolate truffles, lemon curd cake, chocolate mousse cake, mascarpone- and pistachio-stuffed apricots, rhubarb crisp, and so on.
The problem is that these tiny, sweet desserts all taste nothing but tiny and sweet—the nectarine on the panna cotta was cloaked in a sweet syrup piled a half-inch high in the glass, and so the whole thing tasted like sweet syrup. And so did the rhubarb crisp. I see why you wouldn't want the main taste of a shot of rhubarb crisp to be wheatiness or cinnamon, but the glory of rhubarb crisp is that you taste the various elements separately, and together they add up to a whole. If you isolate the sweet fruit, you don't have much.
At dinner there are sometimes more complex desserts on offer, and I had one that was excellent, a banana chocolate cake ($7) in which a disc of chocolate cake lay below an offset cylinder of coffee cream and bananas contained in a thin ring of pliable chocolate. It was pretty, sophisticated, and appealing—not dumbed-down to the point of uselessness. I'm glad I fought with my server to get it, because he really didn't want to give it up.
Service at B.A.N.K. has been, in my experience, highly unpredictable. While service at two long lunches was efficient and courteous, dinner was maddening. At one, we hardly saw our main server after we placed our orders; instead we were subject to a frenzy of disorganized servers' assistants trying to do things like place entrees on top of still-full appetizer plates, and snatch away plates people were still eating from. Once one of them succeeded at this, the rest grew so bold as to actually pull plates out from beneath upraised forks in their haste to ruin the meal.
Another dinner featured a server so peculiar in his habits that I almost felt as if we were being filmed for Candid Camera-esque reality TV—first he spent no less than 37 minutes (after a long time we started a stopwatch) running past the table avoiding our gazes and preventing us from ordering, and then when he did finally approach, he was breathless and nearly shouting with super high energy, but then he forgot what we'd ordered. He forgot the bread. He insisted we hadn't ordered things we had. He wedged himself between guests in order to clean crumbs from one tiny, hard-to-reach section of the table, but left the crumb-strewn majority of it undisturbed. When asked if the restaurant had a dessert wine list, he went into a long explanation of how the restaurant was too new to have one; later I noticed an eight-bottle dessert wine list on the back of the menu. When one of our party went to the restroom, he grabbed the napkin off her chair, folded it carefully into a triangle, and then, feeling the need to be somewhere quickly, flung it toward the table while sprinting away. It missed the table and landed in the aisle, lending the meal a zany, Fawlty Towers sort of edge. Dinner for four cost $300.
And yet, with all that, I'm still glad the restaurant is here. It adds something priceless, rare, awesome, and historic to our city—namely our unbelievable bank, now served to us in a way that allows us to enjoy it. B.A.N.K. offers some glorious cocktails, like a blueberry mojito ($10) made with lots of fresh blueberries and mint—it tastes like a perfect summer day, caught in a glass. Or a white-grapefruit cosmo ($10), a sweet and tart concoction that tastes like grown-up candy, and is particularly hard not to down in one gulp. The B.A.N.K. cocktail is memorable and funny: a pink glass of pomegranate-enhanced vodka garnished with a sprinkling of real gold leaf—I suppose so your insides can get a sense of the same earthly magnificence that your outsides behold.
I don't think any tourist's visit to Minneapolis would be complete now without a visit to the bar in the middle of B.A.N.K., a cocktail, and a chance to gawk at one of the grandest spaces in Minnesota. If you're a native taking a visitor there, be sure to look through your cocktail at the room and decide if you feel your glass is half full, because of the magnificence B.A.N.K. has brought, or half empty, because it could be so much better. For me it's more than half full: Dry chicken and erratic service can be fixed in ways that the work of bulldozers never can.
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