I have come not to bury Stewart Woodman, but to praise him.
More than a year has passed since his four-star Heidi’s (and Shefzilla, his conversation-inducing/blood pressure-raising blog) imploded in a world of anger and disappointment. Rather than continue in his longtime chef/owner career track, Woodman landed a corporate job with Kaskaid Hospitality. His first task: fix Union, the company’s troubled (well, parts of it, anyway) property at 8th and Hennepin in downtown Minneapolis.
The building’s stunner of a year-round rooftop isn’t the sore spot. It’s the first-floor dining room, which has gone through two dinner-only iterations in as many years.
Woodman’s savvy solution is to treat the cavernous space as a free-spirited culinary laboratory and training ground and call it, appropriately, Workshop at Union.
Rather than feel like guinea pigs — there’s actually very little in the way of an experimental vibe — diners should count their blessings, because they’re gaining access to some exciting Stewart Woodman cooking while paying some decidedly un-downtown prices, with most entrees in upper teens, starters hovering around $9 and a handful of snacks running $3 and $4.
Despite their tiny price tags, those inventive snacks are pure Woodman in their sheer inventiveness, no easy feat when you’re talking about a few bites. The best way to spend $3 in downtown Minneapolis right now is on a fantastic nibble of a spring roll, with a flash of pink, tender shrimp encircled by a veritable garden of herbs and microgreens and a swipe of snappy peanut sauce. Oysters, fried with a surgeon’s delicacy, have no local peer, and are a bargain at $4.
A short list of small plates impresses, including a stunning play on Scotch eggs and a first-class upgrade on the lowly Tater Tot. Then again, unleashing the supermodel hidden within taken-for-granted ingredients — in these cases, an egg and a potato — are one of Woodman’s many talents.
In other, lesser hands, the foams and powders and gels that Woodman frequently calls upon to transform, say, a skillfully seared salmon, might appear gimmicky. But not here, where they come off as playfully improvisational on the outside, disciplined on the inside and altogether delightful.
Even when he’s targeting more mass-market appetites, Woodman rarely disappoints. For the meat-and-potatoes crowd, he shows steakhouses how it’s done, coaxing maximum flavor from a velvety beef filet, dressing the plate with an intense port wine sauce that plays nicely against sweet pearl onions and crispy-creamy fingerlings.
The fibrous chew is carefully nurtured out of an offbeat flap cut, converting hefty hunks of beef into a marvelous pot roast-esque splurge that radiates a down-to-the-bone flavor. And there’s a burger-to-end-all-burgers, an exercise in foie gras decadence that has to be tasted to be believed.
Sometimes the kitchen’s experimental nature gets the best of it — an overwrought presentation here, a forehead-slapping moment there — but for the most part, the missteps are more fun-loving and well-intentioned than anything else. Desserts are clever and delicious.
The restaurant’s most glaring stumble is availability, or lack thereof; its regular schedule covers just three nights a week.
With that kind of limited access, Woodman’s more lasting contribution to the company just might be at Crave, which now counts 10 locations in seven states. I’ve had two lunches in recent weeks at Crave in the Galleria in Edina, and welcome signs of a lighter, brighter era were evident on nearly every plate.
Back to Workshop at Union. Although the setting has been benefited from a number of helpful design tweaks, they continue to not exactly add up, and the room remains a poor relation to the dazzling rooftop terrace.
Fortunately, service is first-rate, and the bar makes a concerted effort to deliver on a long list of craft cocktails and a reasonably priced, middle-of-the-road wine and beer selection.
Should you dine here? Absolutely.
Meanwhile, on Lake Street
My first visits to Le Town Talk French Diner & Drinkery, the remake of the landmark Town Talk Diner, were underwhelming, and that’s sugarcoating it.
Co-owners Emilie Cellai Johnson and Ben Johnson were armed with plenty of great ideas: Revive a historic diner after it sat dark and lonely for three dreary years, and specialize in the simple, satisfying fare that Cellai Johnson grew up eating in her native Marseille.
Unfortunately, the menu’s promise was voided by the kitchen’s depressingly uneven follow-through. I stayed away for a few months.
How things had changed upon my return. Cellai Johnson was now directly supervising the kitchen crew, and its output had improved, exponentially. Here was the reliable, even delightful neighborhood hangout that I’d been hoping to encounter the first time around.
Fancy French cooking? Hardly. More like fancy home cooking, in the manner of a hospitable friend whose kitchen skills far outpace that of their social circle. You know, the kind of friend everyone should have in their life.
All meals should start with the meaty, garlicky eggplant/red-pepper compote, spread over baguette. Or the wonderfully rustic pork pâté, or the thick baguette wedges buried under mushrooms simmered in cream and shallots.
Salads and soups get the kind of attention they so rarely receive in modestly priced restaurants (it’s tough to find anything exceeding the upper teens), and the larger plates reflect the kind of hearty, satisfying fare that acknowledges both the diner format and the cold weather.
The half-dozen or so selections don’t stray too far from the familiar — bouillabaisse, cassoulet, roast chicken, beef stewed in olives — but these comfort-food ultimates are all respectfully done.
There’s an excellent steak, gloriously beefy and grilled precisely to order, served with a mountain of crisp, golden fries, and a thick-pattied burger that runs juices and is topped with a pairs-beautifully combination of sweet slow-cooked onions and melty Gruyère. The uncomplicated desserts are a must.
The bar got off to a shaky start, too, but now seems to have found its footing, turning out all manner of tasty Mediterranean-inspired libations.
One thing that Johnsons got right from the get-go is the address’ sensitive remake. The original diner continues to be one of the Twin Cities’ coziest bars, and the dining room — housed in an adjacent storefront — has grown infinitely more appealing. Service is spot-on.
Weekend brunch is a definite bright spot. The croissants (imported from Patisserie 46) are excellent, the delicate crêpes are prodigiously stuffed with goodies both savory and sweet, there’s a killer French toast, a fine duck egg Benedict and a $12 steak-and-eggs combo that is prepared with far more care — and skill — than the greasy-spooned word “diner” might otherwise suggest.
Once again, go.