Lunch at 20.21 in the Walker Art Center
Editor’s Note: 20.21 is now closed.
Almost three years ago, the New York Times cited 20.21 as evidence of Minneapolis’ “cultural awakening.” Wolfgang Puck’s Asian-inspired restaurant within the Walker Art Center was one of several recent “innovative restaurants [that] have expanded the city’s culinary landscape with their cosmopolitan mix of celebrity chefs and appreciation of organic and regional ingredients.” Metropolitan food lovers know that Minneapolis and St. Paul have offered a diverse range of restaurants and local foods since way before 2007, but hey, let’s not pick a fight. Instead, let’s appreciate what establishments like 20.21 bring to our area, such as a revamped lunch menu that provides an excellent dining experience at relatively reasonable prices.
Four Heavy Table staffers gathered recently to sample Executive Chef Asher Miller’s latest iteration of the lunch menu — a mix of sandwiches, salads, bento boxes, and appropriately sized main dishes that reflect the restaurant’s signature Asian flavors. The bánh mì, Vietnam’s most well-known sandwich that is popping up all over the Twin Cities, was a shining example of how properly prepared, well-sourced ingredients, such as roast pork, pate, and pickled vegetables, can elevate a simple sandwich to a true entree. The crispy-crusted baguette could barely contain the goodies inside the sandwich, but any bits that fell out were quickly gobbled up along with the tender fingerling potatoes that completed the dish. Priced at $16, the bánh mì was half the price of a typical dinner entree at 20.21 but about five times as much as the sandwich costs at a typical Vietnamese deli, which begs the question “Was it worth it?” Judging from the satisfied smiles of the tasters, the consensus seemed to be yes.
The two bento boxes we tried garnered overall praise but were not without flaws. The vegetarian box ($12), featuring lightly stir-fried tofu coated in curry sauce and coconut rice, would have benefited from a different presentation. The curry sauce would have been enhanced by the body of the coconut, while the rice needed the kick from the curry sauce to come to life, and serving the dish’s components on a non-divided plate would have made it easier to mix them together. The accompanying asparagus tempura added a light touch to the box, however, and its unique dipping sauce, featuring green herbs, was a nice change from soy-based sauces.
The bacon-wrapped scallop anchoring the second bento box ($15) could have been slightly browner on the surface, but the bacon helped the dish come together. More notable, however, was the 10-vegetable fried rice on the side — the bite-sized veggies added so much freshness and flavor to the rice that it barely resembled the fried rice you find at any neighborhood Chinese take-out place.
The flavors of the “Singapore-style” street noodles with Masala-braised short ribs and asparagus ($16) were also a stand-out. Despite a warning from our waitress that the dish was quite spicy, we found that the perfectly cooked noodles go down easily, without an extra glass of water on the side. The fork-tender meat carried the Indian-influenced seasoning to its advantage, and the asparagus provided a contrasting and satisfying crunch.
Our dessert — a tiny dollop of creamy chocolate cake with a doll-sized scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side — was barely big enough for four people to share; nevertheless, it was a pleasant way to end our meal on the sweet side without returning to our day feeling stuffed or overindulged.
Slow service was the only major defect in our experience, but if you’re not in a rush or don’t have the budget to cover the restaurant’s dinner menu, lunch at 20.21 would be an appealing alternative to your typical midday meal. And if you return to the office feeling more “culturally awakened,” consider that to be a bonus.
BEST BET: The bánh mì, especially if you’re craving a crispy, chewy baguette.
1750 Hennepin Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55403
OWNER / CHEF: Wolfgang Puck / Asher Miller
Lunch served Tues-Sun 11:30am-2pm
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes on weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: The curry tofu bento box is about it.
ENTREE RANGE: $12-22