Photo by Caitlin Abrams
plate at Workshop, in Union, downtown Minneapolis
The Kaskaid Hospitality Group, which successfully launched Crave and a few other concepts, started acquiring big-name chefs a few years back, ostensibly to up their food game as a whole. What a great plan—as long as you walk the walk behind the talky talk of putting names in lights.
When it opened Union in Minneapolis in 2012, the chef’s name was Jim Christiansen, but neither the relationship nor the concept lasted a year. The main level was turned into Union Fish Market with Lucas Almendinger at the helm. That concept/chef didn’t last long either (Almendinger is now at The Third Bird). The latest incarnation is Workshop, and it has been created under the eyes of Stewart Woodman, formerly of Heidi’s fame.
It’s important to understand that Woodman hasn’t been fit into the kitchen as a Band-Aid for downtown, he’s been brought in as culinary director for the whole operation (Jim Kyndberg once held the same position when there were fewer concepts). He’s in charge of menus and kitchens all over the growing company.
Workshop is meant to be a playful arena for Woodman and the other chefs in the company to try out new menu items, mess around with technique and ingredients, and put up innovative offerings that could trickle down into the rest of the company, at least that’s how I understood it. The restaurant itself is only open three days a week, Thursday to Saturday, unless there’s a major show going on downtown or some special events they might open for.
The menu is indeed playful with lots of small bites and shareable plates. Also, notably, almost everything is pretty nicely priced under $20. By definition, the plates will keep rotating, so the beet puffs that I had on one visit were yuzu puffs on the second. This attempt to create a veggie version of chicharrones was fun, but I loved the beet version better. I had an elegant jicama and grapefruit salad with pancetta that was gorgeous with interlacing flavors from small bits and seared foie with succotash was classic and well turned. Tatertots with ropa vieja and blue cheese were like a fully amped cheffy version of totchos.
Bigger plates were hit or miss. Lobster pot pie ended up being a rather sad mess with a hint of curry, not much more flavor, and a noticeable lack of lobster. But the miso sea bass in broth with noodles was satisfying and balanced, a beautiful dish. I also enjoyed the playful free-form veggie lasagna with kale, but the chicken with fettucine was over salted the first time I had it, and ruefully dry the second. The burger is a rich bomb of American Wagyu and foie, but it’s hard to eat and feels like a token more than a burger I would expect a chef to love. The dessert that is This Sh*t Is Bananas does not lie, it’s a circus of sweets on a tray to serve four. I loved that.
But here’s the rub. The times I went, I noticed a big difference in general service and efficiency between when Woodman was there and when I knew he was out of town tending to the other kitchens in the empire. It was smoother with him at the pass, but I doubt he has the luxury of hanging out there. There’s also the awkwardness of having a kitchen only open three days a week: How does it get in the swing of things? How do we become regulars? Maybe we’re not supposed to and this is a special occasion, drop-in-when-you-need-it kind of place? But with a menu that’s constantly innovating, don’t you need raving, addicted fans for guinea pigs? And if it doesn’t stay busy, won’t the capricious ownership just change it again? I just don’t know how to rely on it.
For all of Woodman’s efforts throughout the company, I think his improvements on the Crave menu are quite good. Some of the early plates I’ve had from the differing locations have been great, but I think across the board they need time to get the consistency right. The curse of having multi-locations: If West End’s shrimp is too salty, people assume it will be the same at MOA. Sadly for Workshop, that likely means Woodman will be out of pocket more often than not.
731 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-455-6690, workshopatunion.com