Singular Five

A stratospheric reach and an earthly grasp: Five's Stuart and Heidi Woodman
Jana Freiband

Five Restaurant
& Street Lounge

2917 Bryant Ave. S., Minneapolis

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.

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.

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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Five Restaurant & Street Lounge - Closed

2917 Bryant Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408


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