IT IS THURSDAY NIGHT at the Westin Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, and it is pretty quiet at the BANK restaurant -- the bar is crowded, but it is a big room, and is, at most, sixty percent full. The Bottle Gang feels sure this will change soon, and, being fond of bars when they aren't crowded, we are glad to be here when the restaurant is still relatively mellow. It won't be for long.
We won't speculate on the dining experience at BANK, because that's not what we do, but we can tell you this as drinkers: It's a good bar. Nix that -- it may be a great bar. It benefits from a gorgeous location, for starters. The BANK Restaurant is located in the lobby of the old Farmers and Mechanics Bank Building, a structure with a quotidian name but an art deco sensibility. Built in 1941, the building is less a small-town bank than a monument to industry, with vaulting, 34-foot high walls decorated with the sort of neo-classical bas-relief images that capitalism used to celebrate itself during the war years -- busts that could have been designed in antiquity, but surrounded with text in Roman Capitals reading things like "agriculture." The ceiling is hung with enormous, palm tree-like chandeliers, so stylized in an absurdly tropical way that they resemble a bronze version of the hat Carmen Miranda wore.
Looking inside, you can imagine the wide open floor, with red velvet ropes leading people to tellers. But the ropes are gone, and the tellers are replaced by a dining bar, where patrons can sit and order up food without waiting to be seated, with chefs handing them food in exactly the way bankers once handed bags of money. The center of the restaurant is taken up by a large oval bar, and seats radiate out from it -- tables for four, and then tables for two, and then little sitting areas, sofalike, where drinkers can lounge. On the far end of the bank, where once there were banker's offices, there are now private dining rooms, each given a precious metal theme -- there is a gold room, for example, in which everything is gilded, and there is a platinum room, in which the decorations are appropriately cold and silvern. When you head away from the bar to the restrooms, there is another clever design choice: The bank's main vault has been converted into a wine cellar, with the vault still revealing it's massive metal door, and it's complex locking system that promises to be dynamite proof.
But it is easy to get lost in decorations, especially when they are so dazzling. You can't drink decoration, however, and so it is on to the drink menu. BANK offers a self-named signature cocktail, a bright red mixture of Cointreau, pomegranate juice, fresh lime juice, a float of peach wine, and, as a smart touch, decorated with gold leaf, so you are literally drinking gold. It's a gimmicky, if uncomfortably indulgent, touch: one drinker commented that he felt like he was pissing on the poor. It's a tasty cocktail, but hardly classic.
Fortunately, they do serve classic cocktails, such as the Mai Tai and the Ritz Sidecar, which we ordered and were superb. They are somewhat pricey at $10, but you always pay a bit more at a hotel cocktail lounge, and it's worth paying for a drink that's well made. The bar also offers a rarity: The Vesper, James Bond's original drink, invented by Ian Flemming himself. It's a mix of gin, vodka, and Lillet, and you will be hard-pressed to find another local bar that makes it, because nobody has Lillet. It's famously a bitter drink, but Lillet was recently reissued, and the current version is much subtler. The resulting cocktail tastes quite a bit like a martini, but not quite. The gin flavor isn't quite as pronounced, despite BANK using Tanqueray, and the Lillet bitterness gives it a pleasurable kick. It's a terrific cocktail, and BANK makes it well.
Their bar menu is suitably upscale, including sea scallops, poached lobster, and five spice rubbed duck breast; frankly, we expect that this menu will get a little more declassé as the bar becomes more popular, as sometimes you just want french fries with your drink, and their french fries looked superb, but were not listed on the bar menu. We ordered a cheese flight: three cheeses, chef's choice, for $6.
We ended up with two cheeses, but with one prepared two different ways. The chef chose a hard Wisconsin cheese called Pleasant Ridge, which was rather similar to Beaufort, and a soft cheese from Colorado called Colorouge. The cheeses were garnished quite carefully with nuts, sliced grapes, and olives. The garnish choices were excellent -- significantly adding to the flavor of the cheese, rather than distracting from it.
The cocktail menu had some surprisingly low rent options, including several frou-frou faux martinis and a drink made with Red Bull. The Bottle Gang disapproves of these sorts of things, and suspects the sorts of people who will drink them are just going to head over a few blocks to the trendy but sophomoric bars in the North Loop to get their classless drunk on. Still, the first drinks offered on BANK's menu are the classics, and they are made with care. It's rare enough for a drinker to find a bartender who can make these drinks well, it's even rarer to enjoy the cocktails in so grand an environment. (SPARBER)