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Ambitious Tastes

Reborn Heidi’s aims for the dining stars, including bona fide Michelin stars

Ambitious Tastes
Photo by Todd Buchanan

How do you solve a problem like Stewart Woodman? Stewart Woodman wasn’t always a problem, he used to be just a national-class chef cooking in the Twin Cities. A Montreal native, Woodman worked in some of New York City’s most illustrious, Michelin-starred kitchens, including a stint as sous chef at Le Bernardin, and as the opening sous chef at one of the most ambitious restaurants to ever open in the United States, the briefly extant Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. He set up shop here in the Twin Cities in 2005, lured by the quality of life and the family of his wife, Heidi. Thus commenced a stratospheric local career. He was opening chef at Restaurant Levain, when it had fine-dining ambitions; was nominated as a Food & Wine best new chef in America; opened his own restaurant, the short-lived Five; then captained the first incarnation of Heidi’s, which garnered him a James Beard-award nomination. ¶ Does any of this sound like a problem? Well, it wasn’t. The problem started in the winter of 2010 when Heidi’s burned to the ground and he started a blog, Shefzilla.com. “It’s been a heck of a lot of fun,” he told me recently, on the phone. “I went into the blog thinking, ‘I didn’t finish college, and I probably have a lot of work to do on my writing skills to ever produce a cookbook that’s well-written.’ In the beginning, it was like a creative-writing exercise. Now it’s a little bit scary. Someone gave me a compliment the other day. They teach writing and they love the blog. I’m sure it’s not very good. Every time I see my editor she says, ‘If you ever want help with that….’”

He did eventually produce a cookbook, Shefzilla: Conquering Haute Cuisine at Home, published last fall by Borealis Books. But the blog remained, and it became more than a mere vehicle for getting comfortable with paragraphs. Occasionally, it got him in hot water. “Being a loudmouth has definitely made me some enemies that I would not necessarily have chosen to make,” Woodman says. Yes, enemies. On the blog, he ridicules restaurant critics (“Rick Nelson [of the Star Tribune] is handing out stars like I hand out candy on Halloween”), he gives out awards to restaurant critics (to me, awkwardly, among others), he mocks fellow chefs (Lenny Russo, at Heartland, is “a visionary seeing far off into the future—so far, in fact, that a mere mortal like me can only begin to understand the genius…. [yet he serves food] similar to the soup served in Soviet forced work camps”), or dismisses other chefs’ directions (“Molecular gastronomy… [is] horrific, manipulated, and unnatural”). Essentially, after a year of blogging, Woodman has brought down the figurative fourth wall between diners and chefs, upended the traditional roles of creators and critics, made himself unwelcome in a number of local restaurants, and generally attached himself in a sticky, personal, difficult way to all sorts of people, myself included. The day one of his friends approached me in a coffeeshop asking for a photograph of me accepting an award from the Shefzilla blog was the day I started to wonder: How do you solve a problem like Stewart Woodman?

By limiting myself to only answering the question, “How’s the new Heidi’s?” I feel I’d actually be avoiding a lot of the more difficult questions of what goes on with this remarkable chef. Still, I am prepared to answer that question. In its earliest incarnation, the new version of Heidi’s is easily one of the most interesting restaurants in the Twin Cities. It has a brand-new, hip-hop-and-contemporary-art-accented space, with Led Zeppelin on the sound system, an excellent wine list, and well-trained service staff. It also has some astonishingly good, astonishingly ambitious dishes. However, the new restaurant has some problems, and some diners may want to give it a few months to come into its own.

If you do go, you should know that the most brilliant dishes are, oddly, the cheapest things on the menu, ringing up at just two to four dollars apiece. The very best thing you can do at Heidi’s is to sit down and order all six of the items in the “hors d’oeuvres” section of the menu (they’re too small to share, so get all six for everyone in your party). All six will cost $25 per person, and, if you’re lucky, the menu will still include the eggless “Bennie,” an amazing, astounding, stupendous little thing that looks like a poached egg. I don’t understand it at all, even though I’ve now eaten it three times. The “Bennie” is truly an exercise in molecular gastronomy. It has reverse-spherified layers of corn, white hominy on the outside (which resembles an egg’s white), a liquid “yolk” inside of more corn (this time in the form of creamy polenta), and is crowned with a faux hollandaise made of creamed tofu, malt, and cayenne. It’s topped with little bits of huitaloche (the corn mushroom) and wisps of truffle salt. Eating this thing is like watching acrobats flip through fire at the circus: You sit goggle-eyed as your brain beats a chant of “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it!” And yet you have to believe it because you saw it, and ate it, and tasted it—light and creamy, creating a fresh new sense in your mouth.

The instant pork bun hors d’oeuvre is a similar wow. Here, a star-anise scented puff of bread with the texture of marshmallow is served within a ceramic orb, like a balloon blown up inside a bottle. The center offers a little bit of sweet chewy pork, concealed by a little hat of vaporous tomato gelée. These are destination, showpiece, take-a-picture dishes—I won’t host a food tourist in the next year whom I will not drag through the bar at Heidi’s to show off these little brilliant things.

And yet, so far, the full dinners and ordinary appetizers don’t live up to the dazzle of the hors d’oeuvres. The mussel soup, with lush saffron cream, will make your toes curl with bliss. But the oyster bake, sort of like a stuffing filled with baked oysters that taste sour and mustardy, will make you wonder why you left the house at all. Of all the entrées I tried, I never found one that’s on par with the tiny courses: They seemed either just good enough (the duck breast was perfectly cooked with a nice scallion foam and lingonberry sauce, but hardly fireworks) or not nearly good enough (the barramundi in lobster sauce over pickled eggplant was ghastly, as the vinegar of the pickled eggplant suffocated everything above it).

The use of vinegar and other acids is a recurring theme in Woodman’s current cooking. You’ll find a bracing green-peppercorn crème fraîche dressing on a salad, an elegant pickled beef tongue presented on umami-rich soy noodles, and beets sharpened with pickled shallots. There was one meal I had at the new Heidi’s that had me wondering if, just as Picasso had a Blue Period, Woodman was having an Acid Period. Which led me to wonder if Picasso’s friends and enemies grew increasingly exasperated as his Blue Period unfurled. Which led me to smile, because if Woodman knew that people were eating his food and thinking about how like or unlike Picasso he was—well, that’s triumph!

The one question I dearly wanted to ask Woodman, after he criticized local critics in his blog, was this: How do you want to be judged? After visiting the new Heidi’s, I called him up and asked. “I want to be held to the highest standard there is,” he told me, adding that he wants to be considered among the top 10 restaurants in the country, the 50 best in the world. “On day one, we’re not there. On day 361, we won’t be there. But that’s what I’m driving toward. The interest is here. The community is here to support it. But I think we can do something uniquely Minnesotan about who we are and push to the other side.” You read it here first: French Laundry, Alinea, Heidi’s. Can Woodman do it, in a year, or 10? If the egg-less Bennie and the instant pork bun are any indication, perhaps yes. In the end, I think the best way to solve the problem of Stewart Woodman is to know what the problem is: There’s an ambition here that wants to change the world, and changing the world means changing all of us—diners and critics and fellow chefs. It also means changing our expectations, and perhaps, if necessary, the level of the sky.
 

Thirty-Second Scoop

Ambitious, chef-driven fare from the most ambitious and driven chef in town.

Bites

Ideal Meal: The eggless “Bennie,” a local-caviar cone, mussel soup, the surprise of the day (called “The Shefzilla”), and any dessert containing yuzu or chocolate. Tip: Reserve a table well in advance. Then get every single one of the astounding h’ors d’oeuvres. Hours: Tuesday–Thursday, 5:30–10 p.m.; Friday–Saturday, 5:30–11 p.m.; Sunday, 5:30–9 p.m. Prices: A five-course tasting menu is $42. Address: Heidi’s, 2903 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., 612-354-3512, heidismpls.com
 


Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

Old to new | New to old
Apr 13, 2011 10:05 pm
 Posted by  Rick Tuesday

Dear Dara,

I am extremely confused with your so-called "review". Rather than discussing the food, a majority of your piece was spent on Stewart Woodman, the person, rather than the food that he is creating.

You are the only journalist in town that could not seem to seperate Shefzilla the blog from Heidi's the restaurant. Rick Nelson, who some of the Stewart's crticism was directed at, was able to, as you say, limit himself. Why could you not do the same?

I am not suggesting that you are not entitled to your opinion on this. In fact, I am glad that you expressed your true feelings about Stewart. I would have rather that you had written a blog post about your issues with Stewart, and actually reviewed the food on the plate in the magazine.

Believe it or not, most people don't care how you feel about Stewart. People do, however, care about what you think about food. I just wish that there was more of that on the page.

Repectfully,

Mr. Rick Tuesday

Apr 14, 2011 01:56 pm
 Posted by  Allison L.

I'm sad to say I found your Heidi's review supremely disappointing. Since your transition to Minnesota Monthly, I've found your reviews getting a little too soft (i.e., too easy on the restaurants). You lauded Haute Dish. Have you eaten there lately? Last time I went I was sorry I did. You just gave a nice review to In Season, which is a pleasant restaurant but nothing outstanding. Etc., etc... It just seems inconsistent with the space you waste in this article talking about Stewart Woodman the person and Stewart Woodman the blogger. More than half the article wasn't about the food, the service, or the space! Did you even try the desserts? What about the fact that they now have a full bar and valet? The upcoming patio? The cool glass kitchen?

I'll be the first to admit that I was a huge fan of 1.0, so I'm not the most impartial judge, but I think H2.0 is knocking it out of the ballpark. Also, the criticism of the entrees in comparison to the hors d’oeuvres is one that can be made for any restaurant I've ever gone to. It's true of La Belle Vie; it's true of Restaurant Alma; it's true of Eleven Madison Park; it's true of Le Bernardin. That's the whole reason Piccolo is so delightful.

At the end of the day, I'm not sad for Heidi's that they got short shrift in its review. They're getting uniformly outstanding reviews from everyone else. I'm just sad to be disappointed in your review because yours used to be the voice I enjoyed most.

Still your fan, but disappointed,
Allison

Apr 14, 2011 04:06 pm
 Posted by  CMS

I thought this blog was informative and well-written. It seemed to me that Dara was simply giving some interesting background as to WHO, exactly, Stewart Woodman is as a CHEF ... and the last time I checked, it's the CHEF who largely determines the quality of food served at a restaurant. While I enjoyed her descriptions of the food, I would be even more inclined to check out the new Heidi's knowing what lofty ambitions Woodman has for the restaurant.

Apr 28, 2011 04:04 pm
 Posted by  Dara

Rick Tuesday & Alison: In case anyone is reading this from outside the Shefzilla universe, please know that Rick Tuesday and Alison are great Shefzilla fans:
http://shefzilla.com/?p=12025#comments
http://shefzilla.com/?p=11661#comments
http://shefzilla.com/?p=11304#comments
http://shefzilla.com/?p=11110#comments

And so we will probably have to agree to disagree. I don't even see this review as particularly critical. But I'll put out there that if Woodman is smart, and I think he is, he knows that criticism makes you stronger, but the path to irrelevance is sometimes cozily paved with the best intentions.

May 2, 2011 11:34 am
 Posted by  Allison L.

Dear Dara,

Methinks the lady doth protest too much. I disclosed that I was a Heidi's fan in my comment to your review. In case anyone is reading this from outside the Dear Dara universe, please know that I am a great Dara fan as well. I've commented on many of your blog posts, though I'm unable to link to them here because I can't access blog posts dated earlier than March 29, 2011. I subscribed to Minnesota Monthly when you started writing for them. I keep my subscription solely because of your contributions to the magazine. I followed your column every week when you wrote for Citypages. I bought a copy of your wine book for myself and gave copies to friends as gifts. In short, I am easily as big a Dara fan as I am a Heidi's fan.

This is the crux of why I was disappointed in your review. When one's favorite reviewer reviews one's favorite restaurant, one has big expectations. I wasn't disappointed in your review because we disagreed. I was disappointed because you left me hanging. I honestly and sincerely wanted to know more about what you thought of the new restaurant, as illustrated by the questions I asked in my initial comment on this article. Once a restaurant has been reviewed, it's unlikely that MinnMo will do another major feature on it, so I felt this article was your chance to tell us what you thought about the new Heidi's, which is very different from the old Heidi's, and I don't think you offered nearly enough thoughts on the restaurant itself.

Best regards, even though you misspelled my name twice,
Allison

May 2, 2011 01:05 pm
 Posted by  Dara

Okay Allison, sorry if I'm being touchy - accept my apology? I find myself defending myself from all sides some days on the internet.

I think I was pretty clear in my opinion above about the restaurant, but of course I would. I'll try to sum it up better: Woodman wants to be one of the top 50 restaurants in the world? Well, he could get there. He's not there yet. The hors d’oeuvres, and not even the appetizers, are a supreme level. Everything else he's serving is not there yet. What he's serving isn't bad, it's just average up and down... And I think the complicated political and emotional space he's created has made it nigh impossible to write about him. For instance, I found it odd to read the STrib review and find no acknowledgment of the drama. And yet, I am of two minds on this point, I also think that all this uncomfortable drama may be in the end for the greater good of our city's culinary life. "May", I understand, is an unsatisfying ending to a story.

Unfortunately, such is the temporal nature of what I do. You asked above if I'd been to Haute Dish lately, I have. And I've had great meals, though I understand others have sometimes not gotten fed quickly. In such a case, what, go back and rewrite the initial review? You can also find plenty of reviews here that are of restaurants that closed, changed chefs, or took their highly-praised morel dish off the menu. What then? The reviews age in place. If you've been my fan for a long time I'm guessing you're comfortable with this sort of ambivalence, I'm never going to be anything but your imperfect servant, which is to say, I can tell you faithfully what is likely to happen on your Friday night at Heidi's (you're likely to have mind-blowing h'd, and off-and-on everything else) though I can't tell you what will happen. I can tell you that I will go back to Heidi's, though probably not for a few months, and when I do I'll give you, and them, a full update.

May 3, 2011 09:03 am
 Posted by  Allison L.

Dear Dara,

Thanks for the additional thoughts on Heidi's. Sorry if it seemed I was criticizing your position on the restaurant. I was just frustrated by the review. I appreciate your dilemma, but I did prefer the Strib review's not mentioning "the drama." Why? Because I trust my own opinions on that. I want to hear your opinions on restaurant details. Cf. Michiko Kakutani's review of Jonathan Franzen's _Freedom_. She didn't discuss the drama of Franzen's calling her the "stupidiest person in New York City" (while speaking at Harvard, no less) after her pan of his memoir. I read her review knowing about that drama, and about the Oprah drama, but I would have been equally disappointed if she had mentioned either. I'm a big fan of both Kakutani and Franzen as well. The fact that she didn't think _The Discomfort Zone_ was as good a book as I did would never cause me to stop following her reviews, but I want to hear what she thinks about books, not about drama.

Just my $0.02. Thanks for humoring me. You're a wonderful writer, and I'll keep following your work.

Best regards,
Allison

May 3, 2011 10:00 am
 Posted by  Dara

Okay, Allison, I think we have discovered something fairly interesting: A fundamental intellectual disagreement. For me, I believe that not mentioning that someone has called you "the stupidest person in New York City" is not too far off from not mentioning that someone is an ex-boyfriend... I also think a reader can, with clear and transparent information, sift the fine points for themselves, and that's what I tried to do.

For you, Allison, who knew all sides and follow the blogs, you provided yourself with all the background, but a lot of my readers don't have the interest, inclination, and so forth to follow all that goes on, and so I try to give them a full picture so they can make fully informed choices. As I mentioned, I'm not in my own mind convinced that the drama is to the ill of all concerned, but I do think that an intelligent reader entering the debate armed only with my review would have gotten the fullest, artful, (but within space constraints) most useful review I was capable of providing, which situated Woodman on various planes, internationally, locally, and in terms of the personal Friday night.

Phew!

Glad we're still pals, and thanks for all your trust,
-Dara

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