Up until a few months ago, chef Jim Christiansen’s career could certainly be described as promising. Still, little in the 33-year-old’s experience suggested the culinary pyrotechnics he’s igniting at Heyday.
Subtly subverting expectations while simultaneously advancing the local dining culture seem to be the foundations of the restaurant’s business plan. That starts with the menu’s unassuming structure, which rejects the traditional starters-seconds-entrees format in favor of a more democratic roster of 15 or so plates.
Order a few and fly solo. Better yet, get a group together and let the forks fly. When shared, the portions are sized to take appetites across that most coveted of sweet spots, the keeps-you-wanting-more threshold.
One portal into Christiansen’s exciting worldview is his painterly approach to color. It’s a sight to behold, and it makes a person wonder if he devotes his off hours to poring over well-thumbed stacks of Matisse monographs, or sleeps in a room lined with Rothko prints.
Beauty happens when his creative curiosity becomes focused on unlocking the possibilities within the pale green of unripened, early-summer tomatoes. A variety of tender, white-fleshed and grill-friendly saltwater fish — sometimes branzino, but I also encountered dorade, mackerel and other like-minded catches — serves as the dish’s neutral backdrop, and then Christiansen fills his canvas with serene visuals: a green tomato romesco (the standard almonds replaced, naturally, with pistachios), cool avocado slices and wispy cilantro tendrils.
Flavor doesn’t take a back seat. Quiet sneaks of acid skillfully counter the fish’s rich bite, yet remain hidden within the confines of that muted color palette. Yes, that was a brief tease of tangy pickled green tomatoes, and no, you’re not mistaken, your tongue was just tickled by a dash of vinegar; it’s locked inside the pine needle-seasoned broth, the one sprinkled with luminous pops of cilantro-infused oil. When it arrives at the table, you half expect it to be accompanied by a museum guard, it’s that pretty.
An homage to orange — specifically, and vividly, carrot — is bound for superstardom in the Instagram firmament. It’s also good for a laugh, as the kitchen pulls a Bugs Bunny and pairs the root vegetable with — what else? — rabbit.
Actually, rabbit two ways: juicy grilled leg, and a sublime, flavor-concentrated compote fortified with foie gras. The latter is enveloped in a lighter rendition on a demiglacé — carrot, of course — and the composition is completed with neatly trimmed baby carrots (their just-harvested flavor intensified in a carrot juice marinade) and wafers of shaved raw carrots, each crunchy bite revealing the faintest trace of a lemon verbena vinegar. Sprightly carrot top sprigs toss off an herbaceous parting shot.
It’s a knockout. Ditto the discerning exercise in gorgeousness — and deliciousness — that is poached monkfish with cauliflower, white asparagus and a pine nut-wasabi zabaglione. Or the truly lovely pink-and-green marriage of lamb belly against peas, mint and charred romaine.
Blacks and grays don’t normally trigger thoughts of vitality, let alone edibility. Not here. Eggplant, burned beyond recognition (and tinted with squid ink), becomes a surprisingly nuanced central component to the don’t-miss pork “rib-eye,” a misnomer as it’s actually a fat-capped, mouth-melting cut from the pig’s neck that’s slowly poached then finished, with smoky grace notes, on the kitchen’s wood-burning grill.
Another example of how Christiansen demonstrates how “blackened” is not synonymous with “bitter” is a mellow onion “ash.” It’s scattered over the menu’s most shareable dish, a tart filled with chicken liver mousse, its overt lusciousness countered by the astringent tang of caramelized rhubarb.
A brief apprenticeship at Noma, chef René Redzepi’s world-famous culinary laboratory in Copenhagen, has clearly had a profound influence on Christiansen. That tutelage comes through loud and clear in the way the Eden Prairie native approaches another art school basic: composition.
It’s a radical reordering of what diners expect to see on their plate, the gastronomic equivalent of what the journalism world refers to as “burying the lead,” minus that phrase’s pejorative implications. A salty-sweet excursion into chilled mussels is covered under a blanket of powdered yogurt “snow,” and peeling back a delicate Parmesan lavash reveals a refreshing asparagus salad with sour citrus accents.
Yet unlike so many of Christiansen’s contemporaries, he exhibits a canny sense of self-restraint; his excursions into molecular gastronomy rarely come off as innovation solely for innovation’s sake, yet almost always yield hugely appealing results.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the desserts, created in collaboration with Diane Yang, a friend of the house and the longtime pastry chef at La Belle Vie. Each features a full-throttled granita, sorbet, ice cream or other ethereal expression of chilled fabulousness, and they’re Christiansen’s most enthusiastic flirtation with opposites-attract textures and peekaboo presentations.
For the no-sweets crowd, the kitchen offers a pair of lavishly embellished cheeses, including a rare local restaurant appearance of one of this country’s most memorable forays into artisanal milk transformation, an aged goat cheese from LoveTree Farmstead in Grantsburg, Wis.
That reminds me: While it’s not exactly a vegetarian haven, the meat-free are not shortchanged at Heyday. A salad, alive with herbs and bitter greens, artfully incorporates several ingenious technical approaches (gelled, powdered) of beets, and the kitchen’s blissful spin on bagna cauda presents a veritable farmers market stand of grilled, pickled, sautéed and raw veggies, each one bearing a different and expertly rendered texture.
You’ve got a friend
Christiansen met front-of-house-virtuoso Lorin Zinter when La Belle Vie moved from Stillwater to Minneapolis in 2005, and the two future business partners became fast friends.
“Almost from the very beginning, we’d talk as most chefs and managers like to talk — and think, and dream — about opening a restaurant,” said Zinter. “We had this instant rapport, and we’ve always had the same philosophy about the style of restaurant that we wanted.”
Mentor Tim McKee recruited the pair in 2009 to help him launch Sea Change at the Guthrie Theater. Zinter eventually moved on to the Minneapolis Club while Christiansen teamed with McKee on an ill-fated attempt to revive Il Gatto, then landed the plum gig of launching the ambitious Union.
Through it all, the buddies kept brainstorming, and three years ago they teamed up with software entrepreneur Mike Prickett.
“It was always, ‘Jim and I are going to work together, Jim and I are going to work together,’ ” said Zinter. “Meeting Mike is what made that happen.”
After a seemingly endless immersion in the restaurateur blood sport otherwise known as scouting sites (“We saw, I’m not kidding, a thousand of them, or at least that’s what it felt like,” said Zinter with a laugh), the trio opened the doors in late April.
It should come as no surprise that the payroll is loaded with rising stars, starting with chef de cuisine Peter Thillen.
Jo Garrison’s passionate approach to leavening agents and flour — a welcome salutation to Christiansen’s relatively carb-free cooking — is delivering a glimmer of hope to the fading breadbasket universe. If I carried a purse, I’d use it to stash extra slices of Garrison’s superb mustard-infused sourdough.
Understated good looks
Even the tableware impresses, from the sculptural Myco stainless steel flatware to the plainspokenly chic stoneware, some cannily imported from San Francisco’s Heath Ceramics, others created by Twin Cities potters Jack Evert and Alex Chinn.
Yes, the interior taps into the local dining industry’s seemingly limitless appetite for reclaimed lumber and Edison light bulbs. But Prickett’s design for the cozy dining room and roomy bar is more timeless than trendy. Maybe it’s because the exposed timbered ceiling — a bonus from the century-old structure — imparts a genuine lived-in context to the just-installed wood- and brick-lined walls.
Whatever the alchemy, it works. A handful of witty paintings by Minneapolis artist Terrence Payne add judicious jolts of color to the otherwise low-key surroundings, a bank of sidewalk-hugging windows pulls the outside in and Christiansen’s wide-open kitchen is neatly framed by a monochromatic backdrop of gleaming white tiles. A flaw is the furniture, which values appearance over comfort.
Other complaints? Order a stream of plates, and they might arrive, willy-nilly, seemingly without regard to timing. Because Christiansen sets his own bar so high, a few dishes that might be pinnacle experiences at other, lesser restaurants (a something’s-missing lamb tartare, a trying-too-hard roasted squab) come off as minor disappointments. Such are the tribulations of a four-star chef.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib