From a disastrous fire rises a four-star dining and drinking funhouse.
There's no use denying this, so here goes: I have been a Stewart Woodman groupie since the Canadian-born, New York-trained chef moved to the hometown of his wife, Heidi, eight years ago and instantly made Levain a food-freak destination.
I admired their short-lived Five, where Heidi's pastry-chef powers initially sparked the notice of local dessert hounds, present company included. When that overly ambitious enterprise collapsed, the Woodmans went small, launching their intimate love letter of a restaurant, Heidi's Minneapolis. Naturally, my taste buds crushed on it.
The fun all came crashing down on Feb. 18, 2010, when the restaurant went up in flames. While that kind of catastrophe would have sent a schlub like me to bed for a month, self-medicating with endless pints of Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey, the indomitable Woodmans immediately made plans to start over.
"At least you'll have another restaurant to review" was the first thing Stewart said to me, post-fire.
Talk about bright-siding a lousy situation. But that's exactly what they've done. Their spectacular remake of Heidi's embodies that whole triumph-over-adversity thing. It also represents the couple at the peak of their prodigious talents. Although it has been open less than three months, Heidi's (this time, minus the "Minneapolis") is easily one of the Midwest's most exciting restaurants.
The menu is divided into four parts: two-bite hors d'oeuvres, starters, entrees and desserts, with roughly a half-dozen choices in each category. The shocker is the price: With the exception of a daily special, nothing tops $20. Yet the food tastes and looks far more expensive.
What makes dining at Heidi's such an adventure is Stewart's one-two punch: a relentless imagination and a Ph.D.-level skill set. Many chefs amplify familiar ingredients; he routinely transforms them, deftly layering in unexpected, budget-stretching embellishments -- powders, reductions, a veritable greenhouse of microgreens -- to enhance the sensory experience.
His idea of a beet salad is to cut the vegetables into tiny medallions and use them as the base for what look like single-serving whoopie pies, garnished with what appear to be dried apricots, or maybe freaky kumquats. Nope. They're carrots, slow-fried in butter and orange juice over barely any heat until they achieve a confit-style consistency that reveals an intense carrot flavor.
Another draw? Scratch a menu item, find a story. A dish called "Rabbit in Love" is Stewart's spin on a family dinner favorite that Heidi frequently pulled together in the months after the fire. For the restaurant, he borrowed the meal's predominant flavor profiles -- sweet potatoes, cabbage -- but put his inimitable twist on it by adding rabbit, expertly prepared two ways.
A scientist in the kitchen
Stewart's excursions into molecular gastronomy are all about razzle-dazzle playfulness (and deliciousness), minus the genre's all-too-frequent self-conscious wonkiness. Why not convert white hominy and polenta into a vegan eggs Benedict? Or how about incorporating shrimp stock into several decidedly unappetizing-sounding compounds to create a dazzling flour-free noodle?
The hors d'oeuvres tend to be the most sci-fi of the bunch, and they're served on a seemingly bottomless tablescape of gorgeous, museum-quality -- well, museum-store-quality, anyway -- dishware, another fine example of the Woodmans' attention-to-minutiae ethos.
A daily entree special is the one menu item that exceeds the self-imposed $20 ceiling, and, Stewart being Stewart, the dishes I recently encountered offered whispers of the encroaching spring.
A mild Asian catfish, steamed in white wine under a bed of dried jasmine flowers (another great story, but I don't have space to share it) and served over pale salsify and celery root, was a gorgeous all-white study that could have been ripped from a Robert Ryman canvas. A rich morel mushroom hollandaise topped a glorious 6-ounce filet of grass-fed Hereford beef, the meat so juicy and tender it could have been cut with a butter knife.
Then again, unlocking and exploiting the possibilities in texture is a Stewart Woodman sub-specialty. Salmon, baked in orange peels, has never been so absurdly velvety, and tofu, dressed in a too-sweet soy-based sauce, is silky beyond reason. I'm not sure how he wrestles big-boned lamb shanks into such delirious submission, but each lemongrass- and cinnamon-scented bite is a dream.
A scallop, wrapped inside what had to have been the world's most fabulous cabbage roll, melted in my mouth like an ice cube. One complaint: A pork chop, singing with alluring kaffir lime and bay leaf accents, was uncharacteristically tough.
Concentrated flavors are another Woodman obsession. I don't want to know the number of bivalves required to pull off his rapturous mussel soup. A distinct allergy to the same-old, same-old is another trait; if you're in the mood for chicken, dine elsewhere. Side dishes are not an afterthought, from an addictive puffed wild rice to a luxurious pappardelle.
The kitchen has a nose for rooting out and showcasing oddball ingredients: paddlefish caviar from North Dakota, adzuki beans, Chinese broccoli. And Heidi's vividly creative desserts complement rather than mimic her husband's cooking.
An urban oasis
The former Vera's Cafe has been transformed into an urban and urbane environment that suits the Woodmans' singular culinary powers. Smart Associates of Minneapolis -- the firm's monopoly on great-looking Lyn-Lake food-and-drink clients includes nearby Fuji-Ya, moto-i and the Herkimer -- could have taken its design cues from the menu, as the setting seems to constantly reveal beauty in the mundane. Concrete block, anyone?
After entering a side door, diners gain their bearings in an inviting six-seat bar. The laboratory-like kitchen -- and its chef's table, which will debut in the fall -- lies behind glass walls, meaning the action is seen and mostly not heard.
The intimately scaled main dining room is dominated by two original, scene-setting artworks: A sprawling graffiti-meets-Peter Max mural is by Minnesotan-gone-New Yorker Eric Inkala, and a dramatic leafless tree, fashioned from bleached mitsumata branches, takes root in the center of the floor and spirals heavenward.
Vintage fixtures are cleverly repurposed, and the lighting, all golden twilight, flatters like a lothario hoping to score brownie points. A semiprivate, tree-shaded patio awaits warmer weather. Even the black- and saffron-tinted restrooms, outfitted with their own minimalist tree-branch motif, are worth a peek.
The service staff hums along like the St. Olaf College choir's Christmas concert, starting with a hospitable salutation at the door (often in the person of maitre d' Kyle Bille, dining room manager Elizabeth Cizmaru or sommelier James Parsons) and frequently ending with a tableside greeting from the amiable Heidi herself, who possesses one of the city's more infectious laughs, one she shares freely with her guests.
Everyone from Stewart on down to the neophytes handling the bread service appear to be not just enjoying but reveling in their work, and that fun-loving energy and pride pulse through the building.
One particularly enjoyable evening, my mind flashed back to a conversation I'd had with Stewart before the restaurant's January debut, when he described Heidi's 2.0 as "four-star food at two-star prices."
At the time, his statement felt slightly presumptuous. In hindsight, it seems prescient.