Heidi's restaurant relocates after fire and exceeds expectations

Baby sheep meets Shefzilla: Heidi's lamb shank

Baby sheep meets Shefzilla: Heidi's lamb shank

At Heidi's first incarnation, securing a seat was nearly a sport, involving a tussle with the entryway curtain, bushwhacking through a thicket of outerwear, and killing time while squeezed between the window and Mrs. Whoever's napkin-covered lap. But the restaurant's new digs, in the Lyn-Lake space that previously housed Vera's, make waiting for a table almost as fun as getting one. So let Kyle take your coat and have Lauren fix you a drink. She may hardly look old enough to imbibe, but girl knows how to mix a cocktail.

A Ginger Smash takes the chill off with its honey liqueur and whole cranberries that float among the cubes like sour red balloons. Sit at the bar or, better yet, tote your beverage to the glass partition at the edge of the kitchen and watch the white-coated cooks perform their tasks.

One cleans greens, inspecting each leaf, with the precision of a stage performer. Others hover over stoves, engrossed in searing, hardly aware of the servers striding past to pick up plates. And at the center of it all stands the man they call "chef." Not "our chef," or "the chef," but the general, article-less form, as if to remind us that there could only be one Stewart Woodman. Dressed in a black chef's jacket, he's the eye of the storm, calmly tweezing a string of orange noodles and draping them over a plate. While whirring the contents of a saucepan with an immersion blender, he nods to answer questions over what must be quite a racket. The glass barrier muffles the sound, making the experience like watching a television cooking show on mute—except without all the dramatic scowling and finger-pointing and crestfallen faces. Go ahead and stare all you want: The staff can't see out.

Woodman arrived in the Twin Cities in 2002 after working in several high-profile New York City restaurants. After bright but short-lived stints at Restaurant Levain and his own Five Restaurant & Street Lounge, he seemed to hit his stride at his most recent venture, the intimate Heidi's, named after his wife and culinary partner. But before the restaurant had racked up as many accolades as it deserved, fate interceded in the form of a fire, and the restaurant was destroyed a little over a year ago.

The reborn Heidi's suggests that something was missing from the original. The first dining room may have had an antique romance, but it didn't much reflect its owners' individuality. The new space unleashes the outsize personality of Woodman's alter ego, "Shefzilla." And if you're not up to speed on his provocative pennings, you'd best catch up with his blog, where a smoked meat sandwich was once memorably described as being "better than sex, well, not with me of course (A.K.A. Hebrew Hammer)."

The main dining room resembles a theatrical set: Stage-style lighting illuminates a graffiti mural, red chandeliers dangle from the ceiling, and a tree-size bundle of white branches grows out of the room's center. The space has a big-city edginess. (Was Jay-Z an investor?) It's a restaurant better suited to a man who once tweeted, "Am wearing a gold lamé thong in honor of Lady Gaga today."

There's also a cozier dining annex, sparely decorated with a narrow shelf of candles. Music in both rooms can get loud (try to imagine Pearl Jam being played on the stereo at Heidi's 1.0), though it does help muffle conversations and maintain privacy. But the system's not perfect. ("You have to tell me about the yoga retreat!" No, please, don't!) Should your neighbors start hatching plans for a dim sum truck, you'll be as privy as a partner.

Confident servers walk diners through the food and wine lists with a knowledge and poise that puts guests at ease. This is a restaurant fancy enough to send out a fish knife but not snub the guest who manhandles it. As at the first Heidi's, Woodman offers a boundary-pushing fine-dining experience but keeps the check average in check: None of the entrées is priced at more than $20. With a bigger, more unified kitchen—the old Heidi's had its prep kitchen in the basement—Woodman's role is less line cook than coach. That enables him to build on his former cuisine with more complex flavors, fancier platings, and molecular gastronomy tricks. The cuisine feels energized but never over the top.

Start with a few of the playful, bite-size hors d'oeuvres ($2 to $4). The "Bennie" looks like a mini poached egg with hollandaise sauce, but it turns out to be creamy, gooey, homily polenta formed into a sphere with chemical tricks. The golden sauce is made of tofu and topped with a bit of the savory corn fungus, huitlacoche, found in Mexican cooking. Don't even think about sharing. Ditto the scallop soup dumpling, or "juicy bun," a Chinese snack served in a wide spoon on a tiny pedestal, which tastes soft and briny as a lapping wave. The "instant" pork bun—another take on a Chinatown favorite that's leavened with the addition of CO2 gas and then microwaved!—is even better. It arrives in a little clay pot, wafting smoke when the lid comes off, and containing a spongy shell with a meaty core of umami and bite due to a combination of tomato, fennel, and sarsaparilla. It turns out those glassy "noodles" Woodman earlier tweezed are actually engineered from sesame and soy. They accompany slices of pickled beef tongue, which tastes like a cross between pot roast and sweetbreads with its creamy texture and slight livery tang. Don't be shy, you'll love it.

Among the larger appetizers, a basic soup and salad defy traditional notions. Creamy mussel broth is flecked with roasted parsnips, stewed tomato, and fried parsley. Greens are served like a gift: bundled and secured by a cucumber peel, then drizzled with a gourmet, ranch-style dressing of crème fraiche, truffle, and green peppercorn. (If you'd like to re-create it at home, there's a similar recipe in Woodman's new Shefzilla cookbook.)

Woodman's entrées also juggle flavors and take textures on unexpected turns. The inventive combinations surprise—and also work. A salmon-based spin on cassoulet marinates the fish in miso broth, then stuffs it into a hollowed-out orange rind for a day, like a barrel-aged spirit, and bakes the whole thing intact. (Is this the budget alternative to sous vide?) The salmon comes out with a seared crust and creamy interior that's infused with citrus aromatics. Bites of rich azuki beans pair so well with the luscious fish that you hardly know whether to eat the dish or kiss it.

The club-like bone-in lamb shank is served with a delicate pureed arugula. "Rabbit in Love" offers saddle and clove-spiked sausage with sweet potato and Savoy cabbage. Barramundi arrives Napoleon-style, layered between crisp pastry sheets, with lobster meat, pickled eggplant, and black olives. Its looks are stunning, especially the flourish of vibrant red sauce and sprinkle of crimson powder, and its flavors are as bold as they are varied. A call to Woodman revealed that he'd designed the plate to prove to a certain critic that, contrary to what she'd said last time around, pickled eggplant didn't always overpower fish. Touché!

There's little ammunition for a counterstrike, beyond calling out a seared duck breast with a wan coffee pecan pancake that, on first order, presented the meat very, very rare—poultry tartare, anyone? On a later visit the duck was better, but save for its bright lingonberry sauce, the dish didn't draw much notice.

Heidi Woodman again works wonders on the dessert menu, which has a few more flourishes than the one at the previous restaurant. Chocolate mousse, semi-frozen with liquid nitrogen, comes with two of its best partners, though you might not at first recognize them. Roasted marshmallow appears as a liquefied puddle and peanut butter is dehydrated into puffs—instead of sticking to the lips, it practically floats. The fruit Napoleon makes for another pretty sculpture, with its caramelized pineapple and banana coins with their sugary crust. Basil ice cream adds a contrasting freshness and tempers the sweetness just enough.

While many of our fine-dining restaurants execute dishes solidly, few do so with such a sense of adventure. Heidi's proves that in addition to being delicious, dinner can also be fun: The restaurant offers the most exciting dining experience Minneapolis has seen in months.

So put Heidi's on your must-eat list, with these few pieces of advice. There is a tasting menu available, of five courses selected from the menu, for $42 per person, and it can be convenient. But since the restaurant's prices are already fairly reasonable, the set meal doesn't tend to offer much in the way of savings. (One night's menu, in fact, would have been a dollar less expensive had its elements been ordered individually.) Unless you're interested in supplementing the tasting with its well-matched wine pairings, better to work with your server and order a broader sampling.

And if you remember nothing else about Heidi's, heed this: Order the Shefzilla Surprise. The dish changes about once a week, and while the staff will inquire about any allergies, they won't reveal the dish's identity until they stand before your table and pull a silver dome from its plate...Voila!

One night the heady scent of truffles wafted off wontons filled with braised oxtail meat and slathered in a creamy beet sauce. Another Surprise paired fresh crab with sriracha and cucumber-yogurt foam. Yet one more Shefzilla presented a bed of salt sprinkled with cloves, crushed red pepper, and fennel seeds as a festive beach for mollusk shells filled with fried Rocky Mountain oysters, a.k.a. bison testicles. Had they been listed on the menu, most might have passed on the order and deprived themselves of a meaty nosh—the "oysters" taste rather like mock chicken—enhanced by the zing of tartar sauce.

What might Woodman put under that silver dome next? Go ahead, try us.