Two o’clock, yet no one in the dining room was reaching for the check. Credit the ergo-chic chairs or the docu-drama captured by the promontory windows if you like, but as any foodie will acknowledge, it’s Asher Miller’s new, wallet-friendly luncheon menu at Walker’s 20.21 that’s wearing out the carpet.
Expanding on what the chef calls the “restaurant-y” apps and entrées listed, new additions include meal-worthy salads, sandwiches and burgers (Here! At the Walker! That’s akin to showing Disney movies at an indie house), plus the — ta da! — debuting Bento boxes. Three weekly-changing feasts — meat, seafood, vegetarian — bloom from the lacquered compartments ($12–$15).
But the best-selling item is the new banh mi sandwich, a Vietnamese classic that’s part French (the occupiers), part Asian (the locals), part Wolfgang, the L.A.-based chef overseer whose standards, notes Asher, are among the most demanding — not to mention the Walker, where the food must look as good as the art.
Thus the two-fister contains a traditional, coarse and juicy, country-style pate layered with slim-sliced pork cutlets. Sprigs of micro greens, crunchy veggie matchsticks and tendrils of scallions and cilantro erupt from the bun, a super-crusty demi-baguette born of the New French Bakery. Holding the whole mélange together are dual aiolis — one singing hot and sour with pickled jalapenos and another pulsing with Korean chili paste. It’s enough for two hungry lunchers.
Catering to our inner Humpty Dumpty, Asher adds a side of mealy, wok-fried fingerling potatoes cached in Szechuan pepper, salt and Fresno and bird chilies (“the hottest of the hot,” says Asher, but employed herewith moderation). Also on board: a trio of kitchen-prepared pickles — red onion rings wafting cloves and allspice; straight-ahead bread-and-butter coins; and a dill spear. The sandwich is a Vietnamese street-food staple, but that doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park, er gallery: “It’s got a lot of components, and it must be done very, very correctly,” the chef contends, “and it’s been a huge hit.”
Still, it’s the Bento box that’ll bring me back. “It’s nothing fancy,” intoned Asher with Minnesota modesty.
Actually, it’s a knockout. Today’s oeuvre featured marinated Korean short ribs, thinly sliced atop kimchee — the puckery, pickled veggies that I faced daily in that country, and singlehanded almost drove me from the land. But not Asher’s far more civil version.
Better yet: In the next compartment gleams glossy Japanese eggplant, Hunan style — soothingly tender, lovingly sweet, like eating a Valentine. Aside it, a tepee of asparagus, steals the show. They’re ever so lightly veiled in tempura batter gently flavored with chicken stock, soy and flakes of dried bonito fish, and ideal to slip through the accompanying pickled ginger vinaigrette. Completing the creation, a bowl of miso soup offers a sip of comfort.
The threesome at the next table had it figured out: “You’re either a food critic or you have a hollow leg.” Yes to both. I love my job!
Walker Art Center
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