Chef-at-large and cooking school maven Marianne Miller invited me to go to Heidi's for a chef's table dinner a month ago. I couldn't make it and now I am the girl with regret. She's guest-blogging today in remembrance of a great meal.
My husband Jeff was turning 40 and his normal affable mood was morose, detached, and sour.
Our lives are a haze of diapers, dishes, meetings, budgets, and TiVo. A good day consists of being left to ones own for an hour. Both of us are not from Minnesota and the long cold winter jails us in our home. We have a close small circle of friends here, but any attempt to make new ones leaves us both dejected.
He wants no party, no gifts, no celebration. It seems like a long line of gray days strung together. It’s been a hard two years of the economy and responsibility hemming us in. Lately it feels like all grind, no fun. We watch every penny and hold up at home. Our one luxury we afford ourselves, our relationship, is going out to dinner once a week. We do diner very well together. I get a night off of cooking, Jeff doesn’t have to do dishes, and Braun gets to run wild at Club Kid. This is his big 4-0 and I want to do something he’ll remember, something special, something tailored to him.
I want to start with dinner but lately we’ve been burned. Badly. A lot. As a cook, I know what goes on when everything goes sideways. I know about cutting corners, gouging with wine prices, lazy chefs, or absurd owners. Frankly, I hate that I know this, it ruins the experience for me and makes our one special night feel like a big con: Begrudging the bill, feeling we should have gone for sushi.
However I’m set on finding the right restaurant. I want a fine-dining, independent restaurant chef’s table. My homework is done, a decade of my own grueling European culinary internships and a decade of running in and out of Twin Cities kitchens, I choose Heidi’s. It’s common knowledge that I’m a pain in the ass when I shuffle my own sauté pans and I wonder who has the more venerable reputation, Woodman or me. Recently, City Pages ranked FIVE no. 9 and Red no. 10 as the most missed restaurants of the decade. Then I think, get over yourself already, you’ve been out the game for a while. I’m happy about this because dining in another chef’s restaurant can be intimidating and hopefully he wouldn't take notice, like, “What have you been doing for the last four years?” I call to make the arrangements, Frank is smooth as silk, confident and informal. I like this, it doesn’t feel artificial. The chef’s table is on Tuesday with matching wine parings. I confirm that Woodman will be working and the time.
February 2, 2010, night of, we travel the 30 minutes from our sleepy Lake Minnetonka suburb.
I’ve never been to Heidi’s before. I’m working off an educated guess as I’ve dined wherever Woodman has cooked, Levain and Five. We arrive at the restaurant, blistering cold and walk through the parted red drapes to the host stand. My husband's eyes widen, he’s a big farm boy from Sheboygan, WI with a masters degree in child’s psychology. He’s been out of the country, once, on our honeymoon to France. We are promptly met by the host who takes our coats, offers us a glass of wine, and leads us to sit on the padded ledge by the host stand. My husband leans in and whispers to me “this is so cool, it’s like Paris”. The room is a warm washed glow, it’s cozy and comfortable. Our interaction with Frank and the hostess makes us feel included. I know that he already loves this place because of this reason. We are welcomed not greeted, we are asked to have a seat not wait, the room is bustling but not loud. Nothing here is prefabricated; the room feels like worsted washed wool.
Frank beckons us over, after letting us decompress and soak up the ambiance, to take us to the kitchen. He announces our arrival to the chef. We brought a case of beer with us to offer the chef and his crew as a token of appreciation. It’s a chef’s custom, my husband loves the ritual of bringing alcoholic beverages to strangers who are about to do something nice for you, he’s a Madison graduate. Frank introduces us to chef Stewart Woodman in a kitchen that is the size of a modest walk-in closet. Now, I’ve worked in small kitchens and I’m 5’4, but this is tiny. Chef Woodman looks up from a frothy Beurre blanc he’s lovingly spooning over a perfectly seared scallop. I can't help but think, hold up just a minute here this is crazy, the whole damn thing is crazy. My cook's mind tries to take it all in, the diminutive space and the line which has two young women cooking with Woodman in the middle. That’s it. The line is at best five feet. The plating area: a generous three feet, teetering over the downstairs entry. I calculate the menu and its complexity, the amount of seats in the front, his puerile crew and it makes my head swim.
Jeff offers the beer and Woodman is gracious, funny, and charming. Frank takes us downstairs where our table is elegantly set with fine glassware, multiple bottles of wine are chilling, and candles welcome us to our two-top. The room is a quartered off part of the basement nestled between the dessert garde manger station and the stockroom. The walls are white FRP, the drop ceiling fluorescents are gelled in blue, and the décor consists of photos and quirky art which seem to be hung randomly. It’s heaven. It's not contrived or over produced, it feels organic in its creation, spontaneous yet anchored with traditional old school rules of fine dining. This is priceless and impossible to deliberately create.
The lovely waitress who offers the first wine pairing possesses the rare combination of quality of knowledge and enthusiasm for fine-dining service. She knows when to reset, when to bring the next course, how to deliver food descriptions and give personal evaluations of the pairing. It is apparent that the Woodmans invest in their wait staff, enriching them. She gets positively giddy when offering a Spanish cava and tells us the history of the wine. It’s infectious, we love that she’s teaching us and she loves sharing her new found favorite. It’s a trompe-l'œil , she makes you feel like she’s letting you in on all her favorite gastromic secret treasures, not simply working as our server for the night .
The courses arrive in flawless execution, one after another in perfect staccato and pace with the wine. The pairings are not arbitrary, you can taste that someone is definitely thinking. Actually, they are “deep cut” selections. Not sauv blanc with fish and pinot for everything else. These are intricate wines and complex dishes, not advised for those who haven’t tasted their way through The Wine Company’s catalogue.
Every dish in this eight-course menu is technically spot on. It is all cooked properly. This is surprisingly not common. It rarely happens that someone be so deft and precise in his cooking. What my husband tastes is one of the best meals of his life. What I taste is envy. He rests all of his meats accordingly; he seasons every component of each dish accurately. His sear is textbook perfect, temperature, timing, plating: it is all perfect. The taste profile of each dish is so dead-on, it is obvious he has enormous culinary range, his menu a representation of a life’s work in serious kitchens. Each dish is a hard won line-item from his culinary curriculum vitae. We can hear him giving direction from above, “Pick up Go on table ... Service please ” Jeff likes being in the midst of it all, I’m happy because this man is handling his business, par excellence.
I think about the location and how it fits into the neighborhood. A successful restaurant is a sum of its parts, an equation: the location, the menu, the small kitchen and crew. I think about that kitchen and am impressed with the ease and fluidity of the food that is coming out of it. I don’t think there’s a chef/owner in this town working a line like that not buffered by a gang of seasoned and savvy sous.
During the meal Stewart and Heidi both check in with us, as does the pastry chef who’s working in the corner. Jeff and I talk not about people or things, but of ideas and the story of our meal. Each dish is a chapter and we discuss the plot. It feels good to us to talk about something ethereal, something other than the minutia of our lives. It’s reaffirming to dine like this because we give ourselves over to the process happily for a few hours. Mentally it’s a vacation from the cold, the responsibilities, the weight of choices. Most importantly we trust this man and his restaurant, as each dish, each glass of wine is beyond expectation. The exchange of dollars for transitory pleasure is worth it this time. We are comfortable, cared for, and relaxed, we feel like our old selves, only better.
The team at Heidi's cooked one of the best dinners I have ever had and I feel so lucky that I chose this for my husband’s gift. We both recognize its rarity and feel fortunate to have basked in it.