Singular Five

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

I thought the same about Five's grilled rack of lamb ($28), a dish I ordered twice because I found it so curious. A large, rare-roasted rack of lamb crusted with cardamom bread crumbs is served in a vast, creamy pool of parsley garlic sauce, a sauce that looks vaguely something like a loose spinach dip, and boasts all the distinct Woodman flavors of green herb and sharp cream. Unfortunately, on both occasions the lamb was so cottony, gamey, unspring-like, and muttony that it destroyed any possibility in the combination. However, the portion was, on both occasions, very, very large.

I feel funny bringing this issue of ingredient quality up, for a few reasons. First, because I think Five stands a good chance of growing into one of the most interesting restaurants in the region, because of Woodman's singular talent. Second, I feel a bit as if I'm damning a brilliant shortstop for not debuting as a good running back: Is there any trickier transition to make than to morph from the art-for-art's-sake chef to the gotta-make-payroll-or-the-dishwasher's-kids-get-pulled-from-daycare business owner? No. But then, I am personally wired to call them as I see them, which is why I never get invited to parties.

Which is not your problem. In any event, if food-cost issues occasionally bedevil the best possibilities of the menu, pricing also makes navigating the wine list a bit nerve-wracking. The wine list seems to be composed for those who drink Burgundy every day, think nothing of it, and spend more on special occasions. Many of the wines on the by-the-glass list cost roughly what a bottle of the same wine does retail. There is very little available for less than $35 a bottle, and the service staff mainly seem to regard the seeking of wine advice as an opportunity for up-selling: I was never steered toward a bottle that cost less than $70, and survived one unfortunate incident when a server flirtily asked one of my guests if she didn't always enjoy Champagne, to which she replied brightly, "I do!" And so I was billed $18 for the glass.

Does $18 seem high for a glass of wine in a restaurant with $19 entrees? That is probably a function of the multiple roles the restaurant plays: Fine dining destination, affordable bistro, and bar. In the bistro, where I ate most of the time, the decor is casual, all plum, mustard, and winter-sweater colors, pinpointed with halogen lights and industrial accents, bringing to mind many local everyday restaurants such as Tryg's. The service in both the bistro and the fine dining room is young and casual (and sometimes even cavalier), all of which, when combined with the lackluster ingredients, can lead to a real dissonance between the price you pay, which is, in every incarnation, as expensive as anyplace in the Twin Cities, and the casual experience you receive.

Over several months of visiting Five, I have come to suspect that these various hats are leading to a certain amount of grief: The bistro has its prices pulled up by the fine dining; the fine dining is tugged down by the casual nature of the rest of the operation.

Five's fine dining section is a white-tablecloth room with a lighter color palette, next to, and sharing bathrooms and common areas with, the main bistro. The fine dining experience is available at three price levels: $75 for five courses, $90 for seven, or $120 for the 11-course "grand menu degustation." You can add a cheese course to any meal for another $18. Yes, that does bring one option to $138 per person, the most expensive dinner commonly available in the Twin Cities before tax, tip, and wine.

I tried the $90, seven-course meal, and found it to have about the same ratio of highs and lows that the bistro menu offers. The mâche salad, for instance, was a beautiful thing. The greens were brightened with bits of bright orange pickled papaya and topped with an airy, cloudlike wafer of a white rice cracker, a lively bit of pop and crunch that added both sculptural elegance and textural amusement to the dish. A circle of Canadian foie gras torchon was merely creamy, though terrifically so, and the dried cherry and port reduction that accompanied it added little but sugar. The best aspect of the dish was the grilled slices of nut bread that came alongside. A plate of still-crunchy risotto with truffled mushroom foam was rich and subtle, full of forest and comfort, and as fine as any you'll find on earth, or even in France.

After that, though, everything went downhill. Fritters of crab rolled into balls, fried, and served on little tufts of frisée and sliced edamame beans had none of the briny or sweet flavor of good crab; they tasted, at most, plain and flat. A crepe of striped bass with lobster was a mess: A French fry's worth of flavorless striped bass rested inside a crepe upon an unappealingly fishy composition of chopped lobster and vegetables. Greasy, heavy veal cheeks "goulash," however, were the absolute worst: The composition seemed all but unseasoned, despite the visible, but tasteless, red pepper sauce that surrounded the meat.

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