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The God of Small Things

With Heidi’s, Stewart Woodman and his wife scale back their ambitions—and take a leap forward in the process

The God of Small Things
Photo by Terry Brennan

HEIDI’S is one of the most romantic restaurants in the city. Its space, once the home of Pane Vino Dolce, is divided into two narrow rooms—one with mottled peach paint and an ornate molded ceiling, the other with cerulean walls and white wainscoting—which makes it feel sophisticated, cozy, and vaguely European. There are no televisions or barstools, no pull-tabs or darts, which was why, on a recent night, I was startled to see a neighboring diner pump his fist with excitement when his waiter delivered a plate of scallops. But there was reason to cheer: The Woodmans are back.

Stewart Woodman and his wife, Heidi, came to the Twin Cities from New York in 2002 with resumés that read like a foodie’s Who’s Who, including gigs with the world-famous Alain Ducasse and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Stewart took a job at Restaurant Levain, with Heidi serving as one of his sous-chefs. During the couple’s yearlong stint, reviews were mixed: Some of the fare was dish-of-the-year delightful, but there were gaps in quality and service that detracted from the overall experience. After leaving Levain, the Woodmans launched their own restaurant, Five, with the help of a small group of investors. A lengthy and expensive renovation turned a former Uptown police station into a formal dining room, bistro, and funky bar. But with the Woodmans juggling multiple menus and shouldering a larger management role, Five only amplified the highs and lows of Levain: There were fabulous dishes, but again, disappointments. Within a year, the Woodmans were fired and the restaurant soon closed, likely before they’d sold enough coffee for investors to recoup their outlay for the $7,000 espresso machine.

Stewart had experienced the career trajectory of a lifetime in just two decades: Wunderkind working in high-profile kitchens receives national Best New Chef award, launches his own big-league restaurant…which, shortly thereafter, implodes. The couple’s new venture, then, is a comeback of sorts. It feels like the work of someone who has been everywhere and done everything—and then decided to walk away from all that and focus on simpler things. At Heidi’s, the food feels not about showing off or achieving status, but about strengthening relationships and making emotional connections. Though Stewart and Heidi are just 38 and 35, respectively, their new restaurant feels like the work of a master chef who came out of retirement to open a little neighborhood place, just for the joy of cooking.

Photo by Terry Brennan

It seems fitting, then, that the seeds for Heidi’s were planted last Valentine’s Day, when the Woodmans dined at Pane Vino Dolce and started talking shop with Frank Thorpe, the maitre d’. From that conversation, a partnership was born. Thorpe—tall, dark-haired, and thin as a baguette, the rare man who can accessorize a tight-fitting suit with a scarf and a newsboy cap—now slips between Heidi’s two dining rooms answering the phone, helping guests with their coats, or propping up the leg of a wobbly table. Thorpe’s constancy, along with Heidi’s (she bops around, checking in with guests), are part of what gives the place a much better sense of community than Five or Levain ever did. Heidi’s may be less ambitious than the Woodmans’ prior projects, but the tradeoff is that it’s more approachable, affordable, and consistent.

When one of the state’s best chefs is cooking at a restaurant where the entrées are priced less than $20, you know that formal fine-dining is on the skids. Grandeur is being replaced by gastropubs, where flip-flop clad patrons sit at paper-topped tables and chefs trained in high-end kitchens put a gourmet spin on such old-time, homespun favorites as burgers, roast chicken, and butterscotch pudding. Substance over style is a welcome trend—until the fare starts to seem too safe, too simple, and diners start to think, “I could do that.”

The menu at Heidi’s, thankfully, is rooted in traditional cooking, yet sprinkled with innovative touches that make it feel cutting-edge. Thoughtful doesn’t have to mean complicated: Dishes as basic as butternut-squash soup are made interesting with the addition of lemon and sage. A salad of an entire head of butter lettuce is presented like a bridesmaid’s bouquet and laced with crisp bits of roasted and fried yam and a bright dressing made with berries from a South American palm tree. Though most of the ingredients aren’t that unusual, the compositions clearly require expertise. These are dishes created by a chef with the chops to take the dish further—but the maturity to know he doesn’t need to.

One of those exemplary plates is the braised short ribs, a riff on Asian barbecue. Stewart could have satisfied cold-weather cravings with a basic pot roast, but instead complements the succulent meat with bok choy and sesame spaetzle. It’s a pairing nature never intended, but it works, and after just a few bites I felt fortified for the depths of winter. On the lighter side, I loved the steamed halibut, which was bathed in a delicate white-wine-and-citrus broth with kale, artichoke, and fingerling potatoes.

But my personal fist-pumping dish would have to be the turnip ravioli, sauced with brown butter and paired with blanched baby pea shoots. Yes, turnips, perhaps the unsexiest ingredient in the entire world. Stewart is unafraid to feature underdogs—beets, kale, Swiss chard, and Brussels sprouts—and coach them into winners, as if potatoes and asparagus would be too easy. The fresh pasta pats were creamy and slightly bitter, and perfectly balanced by a generous splash of caramelized fat and the grassy freshness of the greens.

In contrast to the homey entrées, the appetizers are much more playful. A crab spring roll is highlighted by a scattering of bright red bubbles dubbed “jalapeño caviar”—faux fish roe created by a chemistry experiment involving juiced peppers, eyedroppers, and solutions. It’s refreshing to see molecular gastronomy techniques used for subtle flavor enhancing, and not just shock value. Save that for the beet sorbet, a component of a salad made with discs of beet, caramelized fennel, Brussels sprouts, and shallots—tied together with hints of juniper and Armando Manni’s olive oil, thought to be the best and rarest in the world.

Stewart puts a highbrow spin on fare from bars and seafood shacks. The chicken lollipops are humble wings prepared as a dainty bite of meat on a bone, paired with apricot, truffles, and biting frisée. The cheekiest dish is the Buffalo shrimp, a classy contrast to the typical spicy wings sometimes served in beer pitchers. The plump shrimp are skewered, coated with blue cheese and spicy panko bread crumbs, and served with a side of celery foam.

Heidi’s faults—and there aren’t many—lie in overseasoning and underservice. The chicken lollipops, for example, were too salty; the hot sauce on the Buffalo shrimp overwhelmed the seafood as did an acidic marinated eggplant in a seared-ahi-tuna appetizer. Service, though, was a bigger issue. The basics were covered—warm greetings, full water glasses, plates delivered as ordered—yet the process felt uncomfortable, whether due to servers’ lack of confidence or familiarity with the menu. Navigating the wine list was the biggest challenge: Every time I asked for a recommendation, servers turned to their cheat sheets. In one case, three Pinot Noirs were differentiated thusly: The least expensive was “good,” the mid-priced “a step up,” and the most expensive “excellent.” It was little more information than what we’d already surmised—though our servers’ subsequent offer to let us taste the wines did remedy the situation. Service may not be the most important part of a meal, but extraordinary food can be diminished by presentation that lacks polish much like a painting hung in an unsuitable frame.

In any case, Minneapolis is now a city where you can have a Best New Chef fuss over your food at the molecular level, sample the world’s most expensive olive oil, and supplement your entrée with a glass of wine and a dessert (might I suggest the implausibly rich drinking chocolate) for around $40 a person. The truest indicator of this restaurant’s success is that as soon as I finished this review, I made another reservation.

Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.

Heidi’s

819 W. 50th St., Minneapolis,
612-354-3512
Open for dinner Tues.–Sun.
Reservations recommended.
Parking available on 50th Street or Bryant Avenue.
Prices for appetizers range from $5–$10, entrées from $9–$19.

* Click here to watch our virtual tour of Heidi's.


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

Feb 23, 2008 11:12 am
 Posted by  mikanni

With a group of 7 on a Thursday night we had a fabulous meal and horrible service. Our waitress was very nice. However the manner of the maitre d' (Frank) was snooty and he, in the end, provided horrible customer service. All 7 of us agreed that due to his clear lack of interest in customer service we would not eat there again. It was appalling. It is a shame because the food was very good.

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