First impressions (sorry...typed up quickly and without any kind of notes or menu to refer to).
Atmosphere: Atmosphere is stark -- you have black and you have white. Everything is clean and modern-angular. The length of the room draws your attention out to the giant window at the far end with a panoramic view across to the Basilica, Loring Park and the 510 Groveland building. The acoustics and/or rigidity of the room make it loud to the degree that I could barely make out the server's voice across the spacious table for six. Only Cossetta's 15 minutes before a Wild game rivals the noise here. Overall, great for the demographics of its location -- theatergoers, museum dwellers, upscale hipsters, festive folks. Not good if you're seeking a subdued, intimate evening, although the tables for two along the window are small enough that they would probably suffice. No problem last night -- we're a festive group.
What you get: very good flavors, fresh ingredients, attentive and efficient service and a satisfying meal. The format is sharing (we were a party of six). Ideally, you order appetizers and entrees all at once and they pace them out in thoughtful pairings. With a party of six, it becomes something of a multi-course tasting series. The entrees are apportioned for the number in your party. When the items come, the servers circle and plate the items at the table. I appreciated this element as you don't deal with the awkwardness of family-style passing of the plates (and nobody gets cheated!).
Specifics (for efficiency and to avoid adjective overload, boiled down to rating out of 5 stars):
Amuse bouche of szechuan green beans with candied walnuts. (3)
Second amuse: cream of asparagus soup in a tiny espresso cup (5). This was really wonderful, but I need an explanation how it fits in with Asian-inspired food. Maybe the California element of Puck.
Mixed green salad with chicken, tossed in a wasabi dressing. (3.5)
Lobster spring roll. (3)
Lettuce bowls with chicken (to be eaten as a wrap). (3)
Glazed pork rib, served together with lettuce wrap in a "finger food" course. (1)
Note on the rib. It was tender, but the meat and glaze weren't bursting with flavor. More importantly the glaze adhered en masse to your teeth and roof of your mouth. It was impossible to get off even chiseling with your fingernail. I was trying to be subtle about it, but all six of us started looking at each other and the jokes started flying. This dish just needs to go.
Main Courses (white rice and szechuan sauce were brought to accompany the mains):
Mixed seafood in curry (I have absolutely no recollection of the name; it had shrimp, scallops, cod or sea bass, pine nuts and a unique eggplant-like vegetable, which I never did ask about). (4.5)
Miso sake-glazed black cod (5+) Disclaimer: I absolutely love black cod, having grown up on it mostly in smoked sable form. To add, I have an affinity for this preparation dating back to first tasting it at Nobu. This dish encapsulates everything joyous about fish.
Beef Flat-Iron Steak (4.5)
Angel Hair Pasta w/wild mushrooms (3)
Warm chocolate cakes with earl grey ice cream and creme fraiche (three little ganache-style buns) (3.5)
Others at my table had the Pineapple Financier, and the Brush Strokes (tall malt glass with berries, lemon sorbet and ice cream maybe?) and the "Spoon, Cube and Cherry" (or "Cube, Spoon and Cherry" or something).
That particular dessert was visually striking and drew raves from the person who ordered it. I'll go back just for that some time soon.
What you don't get: This depends on your frame of reference. We had an excellent meal, a nice festive time and a lively evening. But having had experiences with other Puck restaurants and several high-end contemporary Asian places, I had some expectations of artistry and ingenuity that weren't quite fulfilled. I mean, Puck's Postrio menu (San Francisco) enlightened me to the possibility that a dish consisting of squab, lobster, liver cream and mushrooms could work, as well as seared foie gras, marmalade and star anise reduction.
Granted, we weren't very adventurous with our ordering -- the whole sea bass looked outstanding, the signature lobster dish ($42) and the foie gras appetizer, tuna and hamachi sashimi/tartares sounded tempting.
However, nothing on the menu or adjoining tables offered anything I haven't experienced many times before. (Example: the lettuce wraps were identical to my memory of P.F. Chang's, spring rolls on par with ones I had two weeks ago at Mai Village in St. Paul).
After a first impression, I think if your Asian-inspired dining repertoire is limited to MSP and the midwest, you'll be thrilled here. Just don't go anticipating the atmosphere and palate-broadening fascination of places like Nobu, Morimoto, Masa, et al (yeah, most of those are contemporary Japanese and 20.21 is closer to Chinese). But don't anticipate the price of those places either. Dinner for 6 with 1-2 beers/glasses of wine each amounted to $270 including tax and tip -- a great bargain for this level of food.
I look forward to other visits.