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