Best Dishes of 2007

For some, 2007 will forever be the year of wide stances in public bathrooms, but for foodies, other moments stand out

I feel like a teenager. Every December when I look back at the year in Twin Cities food, I can conjure an emotion that more or less captures the past 12 months, whether it's: Wow or ho-hum or almost! This year? This year is different. First, there was the roller-coaster aspect. Let's review: We kicked off with the nuclear obliteration of Minneapolis's fine-dining scene. (And no, I'm not going to write one more sentence on the tragic closings of Restaurant Levain, Auriga, and Five, because I have it on good authority from several readers that if I do they will cut my throat while I sleep.) We ended with the near-obliteration of St. Paul's fine-dining scene. (Argue among yourselves as to whether Fhima, Café Margaux, and Au Rebours closed because of business errors or character flaws of individual St. Paul diners.)

In between there were fits and starts of something hopeful: At first, the new Bulldog in Northeast looked to be the great hope of the future, as they were plating bar food to swoon over. That imploded in the Great Mustard Fight of '07, betwixt bartender and chef, which led to the chef's firing, and, in this critic's opinion, Bulldog's quick recession from something phenomenal to something merely very good, which, in a town of great bar burgers (including but in no way limited to Ike's, Vincent, and the St. Paul Grill), doesn't mean all that much. The young chef in question, Landon Schoenfeld, landed at Café Barbette in Uptown, which at the time I thought was a match made in heaven, but, as of this writing, he's off again. Speaking of unsatisfying, so it went at downtown Minneapolis's Harry's Food and Cocktails, which, when it started life as the new home of chef Steven Brown, late of Levain, looked like it would be the gastro-pub that would reestablish Minneapolis. Fast-forward several months, and Brown is now head of the fine-dining restaurant Porter & Frye in the Ivy Hotel, which looks like it will re-establish Minneapolis on strong fine-dining footing—but now not till February of '08. And how is Harry's? Not currently ready for prime time: I went last week and most everything I had was underseasoned within an inch of its life.

Speaking of restaurants not-quite-ready-for-prime-time, that's about all we've got right now. All the restaurants that look to be the great hope of the Twin Cities' dining future either just, just opened, or haven't quite: Stuart Woodman opened Heidi's, his neighborhood fine-dining sequel to flame-out Five, and I've been once so far. The food was spectacular, but if the hosting and seating had been any more chaotic, all 40 of us in the room would have just sat on the floor and wept on one another's shoulders. It wasn't dissimilar at Mission American Kitchen, which, as of my last visits, had truly spectacular original cooking led by chef Doug Flicker, and a front of the house that all but prevented fine dining. Meanwhile, I stopped in at Meritage in its first few weeks, that being the St. Paul brasserie that has replaced Au Rebours, and they, too, are stumbling through opening-restaurant discombobulation: forgetting components of dishes, serving simple things overcooked, and so on. Jasmine 26, the fancy big sister to Eat Street favorite Jasmine Deli, seems promising, but whenever I've been, the owners impress upon every table that this incarnation is merely provisional, and that everything will change with the grand opening, now scheduled for late January of '08. Can't wait.

More-than-pleasant pheasant: Stewart Woodman makes a triumphant return to the local  restaurant scene with Heidi's
Alma Guzman
More-than-pleasant pheasant: Stewart Woodman makes a triumphant return to the local restaurant scene with Heidi's

But: So it goes. It's all very adolescent. As I write this, I feel we are a food city with big ambitions and big, stumbling puppy feet on gangly, spindly puppy legs: We stutter, we sputter, we surge forward, we stumble, we blush, and we retreat. I take solace in the idea that an awkward adolescence is pretty much the prerequisite for a cool adulthood—but that don't mean it ain't painful. Still, in a painful, peculiar, and unresolved year, there were plenty of spectacular dishes, plenty of wonderful memories, plenty of grist for the mill. And, courtesy of my memory book, in no particular order, here are the best of the best:

1) Pheasant at Heidi's

My visit to Heidi's re-taught me two things: One, Stewart Woodman is an amazing chef; and two, there is a point at which complications in seating can pretty much ruin a meal. (And no, don't ask me why I'm always surprised when I go to a just-opened restaurant and it acts like a just-opened restaurant.) In any event, if you don't know, Heidi's is the tiny, long-anticipated south Minneapolis restaurant by Stewart and Heidi Woodman. Stewart was once the opening sous chef at New York City's Essex House by Alain Ducasse, and later the opening chef of Restaurant Levain and Five. His own little jewel-box of a restaurant opened in November, and the food is nothing short of spectacular. There was a poached pheasant breast in a clove-touched pheasant jus paired with cauliflower and arugula ($19), which was like nothing I've ever had, and that's saying a lot. The pheasant itself was as tender as flower petals, the jus smoky and rich, the cauliflower and arugula contributing unexpected notes of acid and flint. Amazing stuff. I can't wait to try more. Heidi's, 819 W. 50th St., Minneapolis, 612.354.3512; www.heidismpls.com.

2) Tasting menu at Mission

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