Singular Five

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

The dessert sampler plate was the nicest part of the dinner. Here, pastry chef Jonny Saliba takes a plate with four segments and places a tablespoon or two of amusing artfulness in each quadrant: I had a "raviolo" made by filling slices of skin-on green apple with a caramel praline and a surprisingly earthy and fragrant sweet parsnip foam; a glowing orange passion fruit gelée supporting a spoonful of lemon and black pepper cream and a tiny free-form sugar sculpture; half of a pine-nut and balsamic vinegar tartlet, made grassy with herbal olive oil and festive-looking with a snowfall of grated white chocolate; and, finally, a tiny rectangle of dark chocolate cake, brownie-dense, resting on a stripe of dark chocolate sauce and topped with a smoky teaspoon of pale orange ice cream flavored with oak-smoked paprika--a fascinating flavor, not unlike eating snow by a bonfire.

Woefully, the most memorable part of the meal was the miserable note it ended on: After our check had been dropped, our server's assistant came to the table to announce that the chef had "a gift" for us, after which she proclaimed we were now permitted to go to a table in the corner of the dining room and choose a bit of house-made candy, a caramel, a marshmallow, a lollypop, or a fruit gelée--but only one each! When we asked for a knife to split our lordly two candies, our server actually made a face. "We're spending $300 on a meal like that, and you can't part with a lousy marshmallow? I wouldn't come back here if you paid me," concluded my date, whipping her coat around her shoulders as she led our race from the all-but-empty dining room.

This, I complained to my notebook later in the evening, is an inauspicious way for a great chef to get rolling. Because Woodman is a great chef, and one of the few people working in the Midwest who stands a fair chance of national recognition, if he can only transcend the customary limitations of human ability.

Of course, that is precisely the great and unfair problem of the genius-chef-owner: There is little chance that a mere human being can control every little facial tic of his servers, or can force his line cooks to monitor every scallop. However, this is exactly what we do expect. Alain Ducasse, the chef, the person, is judged by the behavior of coat-check girls he'll never meet, croissant bakers he'll never see, and meals he'll never hear of. When I was in Paris a few months ago, I went to L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, and had an unforgettably foul experience. So now, unfairly, I am suspicious of the continuing reputation of the great chef. A few days earlier I enjoyed a stunning takeout container of pistachio rice pudding at boulangépicier, and gave grateful thanks in my mind to the star chef behind the little bakery, Alain Ducasse, regardless of whatever continent he was on at the time.

It's an unfair, unjust, impossible, improbable, and generally terrible job, being a genius chef. I only hope that the next time I go to Five, Woodman's nailed it.

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