Small But Mighty

The personal touch: At Heidi's, there's a good chance your meal was prepared by an actual celebrity chef
Alma Guzman

819 W. 50th St., Minneapolis

If you want to really rile up a millionaire celebrity chef, ask him this question: "So, who really cooks in your restaurant?" Faster than you can say "foie gras," he'll throw down his Louis Vuitton knife roll full of free, endorsement-deal golden knives and sputter that this is a naive question—the chef is the chef, even if he only visits the restaurant a few times a year and lives on another continent. But is such a chef really the chef? I'm not so sure.

If you're not so sure either, pilot yourself over to Heidi's, the new restaurant by Stewart Woodman, and try to get a table in the first dining room, against the east wall. From there you can turn your head to the left at any given moment and see Chef Woodman, onetime New York City power player at such restaurants as Alain Ducasse's Essex House, Zoe, Lespinasse, and Le Bernardin, plating your dinner. Or plating someone else's dinner. Or receiving clean dishes from the dishwasher. Or answering a question from a server.

He's not there because a TV film crew is there. He's not there because a writer from a glossy magazine is on hand taking notes. He's just there. Every single night. Deglazing pans. Sautéeing fish. Reducing pheasant stock. Arranging micro pea shoots beside ravioli. And if you happen to show up around lunchtime and look through that same window, you'll see Woodman portioning the fish, roasting the pheasants for stock, making the ravioli, and so on. Is this any way to run a restaurant?

A lot of chefs would say no. In fact, some chefs have a phrase for running a restaurant this way, and it's not a particularly flattering one. They call it "dairy farming," because, like a dairy farmer, you have to be there to milk every morning, milk every night, help with calves at three o'clock in the morning, clean out the stalls all afternoon. I had a number of astonishingly good meals at Stewart Woodman's new restaurant, and I had a couple of truly mediocre ones, but through them all I never got over the full-on shock of looking at that little window and seeing him doing one of the least glamorous of human activities: working through dinner.

Of course I called up Woodman once I was done eating in his 40-seat jewel-box restaurant. "So," I asked, "how do you like being a dairy farmer?"

"It's my dream job," he told me.

"Really?" I asked. "No, really."

"It's my dream job," he insisted. "This, just cooking, is the job I've loved more than any other in my whole career. I get in in the morning, I cook all day, I cook and cook and cook. I feel like at this point in my life I want to be a dairy farmer. My wife would probably wish I was more of a chef sometimes so that our lifestyle could reflect that, but what can you do? You are who you are."

Speaking of dairy farming, Woodman told me, did I know who was really suffering at Heidi's? His purveyors. "I call them up, 'I need two pounds of tuna. No, that's all. Just two pounds. No, I'm not joking. I couldn't use an ounce more. Be sure to hurry.'" I suppose someone must suffer for Woodman's art, and I'm glad it's not me.

For in the best cases, people at Heidi's are really experiencing art—if they order the warm fingerling potato appetizer ($9), for instance. Here, Woodman dresses a handful of warm potatoes poached in a black-peppercorn broth with a Dijon vinaigrette enhanced with a tiny dice of cornichon pickles, lines up the potatoes on a bed of warm creamed leeks with melted raclette cheese, and scatters crispy bits of browned leek over the whole thing. Jumping Jehosaphat, that's a potato salad. Creamy, salty, tangy, cheesy, crispy, a little peppery and flinty from the peppercorn broth, perfectly balanced in terms of salty, sour, creamy, and sweet, it's one of those appetizers you finish and want to tell your server: "Now, for an entree, I would like a lasagna-pan-sized serving of the same thing." If there's a better vegetarian appetizer in the metro area, I'll eat my lasagna pan.

The butter lettuce salad ($5.75) is another stunner. A small head of butter lettuce is pulled apart and trimmed, restored to its original shape, tied with a leek so it resembles a little bouquet, scattered with diamonds of roasted yam and slices of fried yam, and drizzled with an acai, shallot, and fresh ginger vinaigrette that has been reduced till the acai berry juice loses some of its blueberry-pomegranate fruitiness and assumes an almost meaty depth. Each bite is like a little song of vegetable purity burnished by the sweetness of fruit, then given weight by the shadow of roasting and caramelization. It's also gorgeous—one of those plates you look at and think, "Oh, this is a chef. This is what I could never do. This is art." And it costs the exact same as a Greek salad from the pizza place on the corner.

Speaking of art, I had a few entrees at Heidi's that, like the appetizers, were nothing short of breathtaking. Steamed halibut ($19) in a buttery white-wine citrus broth studded with small, whole fingerling potatoes, artichoke hearts, and dark pillows of wilted kale was a little dance of rich, elegant simplicity, accented like a well-set table with little leafy bursts of green.

A poached Wild Acres pheasant breast ($19) with roasted cauliflower and fresh arugula in a deep, dark pheasant jus was a miracle, the pheasant as tender as a noodle, the spicy, deeply caramelized jus accenting it as beautifully as velvet does pearls. The sadness I feel in writing this next sentence hurts me down to my toes: That pheasant will soon be coming off the menu because the birds are getting ready for their mating season, which makes them tough and unpleasant. Now, feel free to stop reading and discuss among yourselves who else in your acquaintance becomes tough and unpleasant in preparation for love.

Are you back? Good. In addition to the art-for-art's-sake plates, I admired a couple of dishes for making an art out of living thriftily. For example, $9 here can get you an entree of tender house-made ravioli filled with a slightly licorice-scented turnip puree, the plump little darlings lined up on a plate like solitaire cards and arranged in a rich brown butter sauce, beside a tangle of baby pea greens. Sweet, delicate, a little smoky, a little fresh, and appealingly simple and innocent, this was quite a fancy bit of chef work for such a street-food price.

Still, I never felt that everything at Heidi's is art. I tried things I thought were utterly mediocre, like a dish of little chicken wings on the bone served with apricots and a truffle vinaigrette ($9.50), or a pork tenderloin in an unpleasantly uncomplicated and thin sweet-and-sour broth ($16). I even had one thing I absolutely despised—a fillet of roast cod ($17) served in a bowl of what looked and tasted like some kind of high-fiber, overly sweetened breakfast cereal, but which I knew to be a chef-made sauce of almonds, white grapes, and lobster oil. "My wife hates that one, too," Woodman told me. "It's kind of a dish you either love or hate." If anyone's keeping score, I'm firmly on the side of hate.

I wouldn't say I hated the desserts at Heidi's, but I never really found one I loved, either. To me, the combination of lemon and pink peppercorns in the crème brûlée ($5) tastes too much like perfume, and the molten chocolate cake ($7) was fine but ho-hum. All I could think about the drinking chocolate ($5.50)—just a simple cup of ultra-thick, creamy, bittersweet hot chocolate—was: Is that all there is?

Yet even with all these elements I didn't care for at all, I never stopped feeling that Heidi's was that rarest of creatures: a simply great restaurant.

The wine list is partly what does this. Designed by Woodman's wife and the restaurant's namesake, Heidi Woodman, this 50-bottle list is a marvel. It feels like it truly was plucked from vineyards around the world that were planted just to match Woodman's food. On top of that, it's affordable. A $30 bottle of the 2005 Domaine Martin Schartzel Alsatian Riesling, for instance, has a brisk, green-apple nerve to it that slides up beside that warm potato salad in the most flattering possible way, cutting the richness, amplifying the perfume of the leeks, and generally flouncing and showing off the best aspects of the dish, like Ginger Rogers making an already impressive Fred Astaire look better. Similarly, the Alois Kracher Trockenbeerenauslese ($12 a glass) cozies up beside a dish like the poached pheasant and teases out depths of winter spice and herbal fruitiness that would be merely latent in the food without the wine. I don't think I've ever experienced a wine list so in harmony with the food a restaurant offers, which is actually, in its way, a small, beautiful, and truly lovely thing.

Which, during its best moments, is what Heidi's, the restaurant, is too.

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