Singular Five

Stewart Woodman's long-awaited solo venture is stylish, costly, and absolutely unique

Five Restaurant
& Street Lounge

2917 Bryant Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.827.5555
www.fiverestaurant.com

Most chefs are dropped, by birth or chance, in some corner of the great wide world, and so they cook what seems popular or profitable at their particular moment and place of dropping, and that is that.

Not Stewart Woodman.

He is among the rarest of chefs, one who can survey the infinite alphabet of the edible and pick out just enough elements to create a personal language, a unique cuisine, a personal reinvention of the world that fits into the square inch at the end of a fork. I am not the only one who thinks so: His rare talent, and the earthly skill set he has to match, have ushered Woodman into the tippity-top of his profession. Before moving to Minnesota to raise a family with his Minnesota-born wife, Heidi, Woodman was the opening sous-chef in New York City for Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, a sous-chef under Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin, worked with Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Mercer Kitchen and Jean Georges, and ended his New York run as the well-reviewed chef at SoHo's Zoe. After moving here, he was the opening chef at Restaurant Levain.

All of this has led, at long last, to the opening of Five, Woodman's own restaurant, which combines an astonishingly ambitious fine dining room, a large bistro, and a bar in one single south Minneapolis space--a space that used to be the Minneapolis Police Department's Fifth Precinct headquarters, hence the restaurant's name.

Visit Five and you will find fast evidence of Woodman's utterly unusual cuisine, which favors flavors of flint, chalk, flour, fish, cabbage, herb, grass, cream, earth, game, and dusk, offset by tang.

In the bistro, which is the largest portion of Five, you can find much evidence of Woodman's singular language: His cauliflower soup ($7), for instance, is a thick, pale, creamless puree of almonds and the white cabbage, in which marble-sized florets of dark brown, caramelized cauliflower florets float. It tastes papery yet deep, floury yet broad, and slightly meaty and roasted, and makes you question whether cauliflower and Pernod have anything in common. It's a completely unusual creation, and delicious.

Woodman's "Beet Variation #6" ($11) is another fascinating essay in his own particular language. Here, the titular roots were transformed in chefly ways to something between an essay and a sculpture on the nature of the sweetest earth-dweller: On one part of the plate yellow beets were julienned into a small, geometric hay bale and dressed with an invisible sweet vinaigrette; beside those vaulted a fried mound of shoestring potatoes, as thin as whiskers and crisp as crunch, sprinkled with a dusky accent of truffle salt. Beside the potatoes was a mound of roughly minced, almost torn-looking, dark red beets dressed with Banyuls vinegar and herbs. Beside that was a deep crimson sorbet made also of beets, presented on top of a white spoonful of creamy fresh goat cheese.

To skip between the various beet preparations was to experience the sweetness, the earth, the depth, and the very essence of beets, and to have that essence seem to flicker before you, ever-changing. It put me in mind somehow of a line of Rockettes: They're all different, they're all the same, they're a stunning visual pageant, they're unseeable by the human eye--quite an achievement for beets.

A few of the entrees reach similar heights. My favorite was a salmon fillet, steamed in a banana leaf and served in a curry sauce ($23). The salmon is so tender it's practically flanlike. It's given the Woodman trademark notes of dusky, jungly, and flinty by the earthy banana leaf that wrapped it during cooking, and given further Woodman accents of flint and herb by the fresh garnish of endive topping it. If that isn't enough, the fish is imbued with a perfect defining note of perk and kick by the subtle fading-sunset-colored curry sauce that surrounds it, and, finally, rounded out with a harmony of bottom notes of roast and char in the form of the marblelike balls of tender carrots and potatoes which loll darkly in the sauce. Marvelous.

I also liked Woodman's straightforward sautéed chicken breast ($19), a bird that offers both creamy texture and earthy accents, in the form of the wild rice pilaf with fresh fava beans that accompanies it, and a defining shadow of spice, in the form of a pumpkin-bright piquillo pepper sauce.

On a good night, the pastries served in the bistro are mostly plain and likable, such as the beignets ($6)--hot, sugared doughnut holes presented with a hot bowl of fudgy cardamom chocolate sauce for dipping. There is one very ambitious pastry worth seeking out, namely the "Ode to the Crisp" ($8), a rectangular layered creation of crisp chocolate sheets and wafers, piped coffee cream, chocolate cake, chocolate praline, and candied cocoa nibs that has as much chocolate as it sounds like it does and is very satisfying. On a bad night, the pastry runs out, as it did on two of my visits, and life is a vale of tears.

Generally, when you receive the best that Five can do, the new restaurant seems like one of the most original and fascinating restaurants you might ever behold. Unfortunately, in my visits I also experienced many dishes that proved that a unique stroke of genius is not always enough to sustain a restaurant. My primary complaint was that frequently the main protein in a dish wasn't of high enough quality to sustain the artful treatment. An entree of scallops ($28) served translucent-rare on a sweet corn waffle with a lovely spicy-sweet bacon vinaigrette was ruined by the old-tide and chemical scent the scallops emitted when cut. They simply weren't scallops able to stand up to the low-input, ingredient-first nature of super-high-end dining.

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