Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Eating out: Heidi's

Hambone and I recently ate at Heidi’s, Stewart Woodman’s new south Minneapolis restaurant. A few years ago, we had a really memorable meal at Woodman’s last restaurant, Five—housed in the former Fifth Precinct building in Minneapolis. I still dream of the “Bhopal style” lamb loin in yogurt-cilantro sauce, essentially a deconstructed but refined Indian “curry,” as well as the lemon crème brulee with candied pink peppercorns, one of the most unusual and refreshing desserts I have eaten in a Twin Cities restaurant. With our coffee, the chef sent out house-made mini donuts, an homage to the building’s origins as a police station.

No sooner had Hambone and I vowed to return than Woodman was bought out by his partners and shown the door. The restaurant closed soon after as part of the Great Restaurant Massacre of 2007, which has been detailed by others, so no need to dwell. Good news: Stewart Woodman is back with Heidi’s.

The restaurant, named after Woodman’s wife (who is also the pastry chef), occupies a tiny space in south Minneapolis (next to the [also] very hot Blackbird). To say it’s a jewel box would seem a little clichéd, and nothing about Heidi’s is clichéd.

The concise seasonal menu offered approximately eight appetizers, eight entrees, and a handful of sides, including such items as stewed mustard greens and buttered papparadelle. The wine list boasted intriguing bottles in a range of prices, some under $30, as well as a handful available by the glass. The dessert list featured the gamut from creamy (“dreamsicle” crème brulée) to chocolate (cake), with fruit in between. There’s even a cheese trolly [sic] ($17 for a "selection") for those who don’t require a sweet to end the meal.

For the sake of not making a circus out of our meal, I left my camera at home, so you’ll have to trust that every dish was gorgeously presented.

We shared this wonderful meal with friends, Tracy and Bill.

To start, I took the warm fingerling potato and raclette salad with leeks, mustard sauce, cornichons, while Hambone ordered crepe with foie gras, curried Beluga black lentils, hibiscus syrup, which I didn’t try but trust was delicious from Hambone’s discrete groans. I wish I had brought my camera if for no other reason than to document the exquisite presentation of Tracy’s butter lettuce salad. The leaves of which were removed and arranged to resemble a flower. Bill’s crab spring rolls were garnished with jalapeno “jelly beans,” a nod to molecular gastronomy. We drank a Gruner Veltliner (Anton Bauer Gmork ’06), which paired nicely with all entrees, but especially well with my potato "salad."

Each main course was stunning. My off-menu lobster in a parsnip puree and ginger emulsion, offered unique flavors and textures that were at once innovative and comforting. Hambone’s sautéed Australian sea bass was perfectly prepared, the flesh fluffy and soft between a nice pan-seared crust. Tracy’s homemade ravioli stuffed with beets, goat cheese and chives were singular though. The wrapper was whisper thin and held a beet slice, which was surprising as we all imagined the ravioli filling would be a puree. The truffle foam surrounding the ravioli felt essential, not gimmicky in the least. Bill’s anise-scented lamb shank on a wild rice salad was priced cheekily at $17.76. With our mains, we drank a well-balanced and flexible French pinot noir (Domaine Joseph Drouhin “Laforet”, ’05).

I’m looking forward to returning so I may order my own portion of lamb shank or the grilled lemon fish on stewed mustard greens in a bacon fumet. Bacon fumet, say no more.

The table shared an outstanding chocolate dessert—in fact, the best chocolate dessert I’ve had in an MSP restaurant, in a long time. This flourless chocolate cake had a dreamy, boozey finish. A quenelle of luscious espresso ice cream on the side was unnecessary but much appreciated.

The only misstep in the evening was the thirty minute wait for our reservation. Even though we were twenty minutes late, our table wasn’t ready for us. The front of house was backed up, packed with a couple four-tops waiting to be seated. You can do the math. I know that Heidi’s has been booked solid practically since the restaurant opened last fall—because the food is amazing. Kudos! But there is no bar and no comfortable sitting—or standing—area in which to wait for your table. The Woodmans absolutely have to figure out how to handle reservations or the effect of small, charming, and exclusive is totally ruined, and the food may not be worth the inconvenience.

That said, I will be back as soon as I can secure another reservation!


My Rancho Gordo order arrived today. I can't wait to curl up with my cookbooks and research recipes for the giant limas, marrow beans, and eye of the goat.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

local food writing round-up

Dear Dara blogs about Marianne Miller—a hot local chef whom no one knows by name—and her new Wayzata cooking school, as well as a tip on a cheap, tasty, secretly located Indian buffet.

More Dara: a cool round-up of six no-guilt meals from some of MSP's hottest chefs. Fugaise has been under my radar, with absolutely no word of mouth from my foodie friends, but I've vowed to remedy the situation by checking it out for myself.

OMG—a local Easter candy survey at City Pages.

If you're in town this Easter weekend, looking for a special brunch, try one of these recommendations from the Strib's Rick Nelson. I'd put my money on the Red Stag or Grand Cafe.

Monday, March 17, 2008

reading: Service Included

One Sunday morning, when the boys woke me up early to watch cartoons with them, I took an opportunity to sample a few pages from each of the books piled on my coffee table. It didn’t take long to get totally hooked by Phoebe Damrosch's Service Included, an account of the author’s time spent as a captain at Thomas Keller's New York restaurant, Per Se.

I had the great fortune to celebrate my most recent birthday at Thomas Keller’s Napa restaurant, The French Laundry. In addition to the outstanding meal, I noticed that the service was different from that which we are accustomed to receiving at higher-end restaurants. Unlike the excellent NYC restaurant, Jean-Georges, where a squadron of servers descends upon your table for every single course, administering sauces, cracking pepper, and applying other touches to your plate that, quite frankly, should have been done in the kitchen, the French Laundry’s service is designed so as not to be noticed. Servers are out of your way, but are also attentive to your needs, trying to anticipate what you might want before you have to ask.

In Service Included, Damrosch writes about taking a position as backserver—serving bread, replacing silverware, refilling water glasses—at Per Se, before the restaurant opens to the public. She details the lengthy training she and the staff receive. Her aptitude earns her a quick promotion to captain, presenting the menu and managing the multitude of servers assigned to a number of tables.

The training is intense. Keller is exacting—always described as a perfectionist—and the stakes are high for his new restaurant’s success. In addition to knowing which silver or crystal to set with particular food, the servers can tell any inquiring diner where the tiles covering the floor came from or who sculpted the statue in Central Park marking their view. And Keller has many rules, such as “No cologne, scented lotions, scented soaps, aftershave, or perfume are to be worn during service,” and “If you’re going to be more than five minutes late for your shift, you must call—even if it means getting off the subway to do so.”

Damrosch is smart and has a great sense of humor, and both qualities clearly come through in her writing. She leaves tips for diners at the end of most chapters, such as “Please do not ask us what else we do. This implies that (a) we shouldn’t aspire to work in the restaurant business even if it makes us happy and financially stable, (b) that we have loads of time on our hand because ours is such an easy job, and (c) that we are not succeeding in another field.”

And, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there’s a lovely little romance. Damrosch finds herself drawn to a wine captain who has come from The French Laundry to help with the training. The attraction is mutual, even though he’s come to New York with his girlfriend, who also happens to work for Keller. A messy, forbidden affair ensues, and I found myself rooting for Damrosch, who gets the guy in the end.

Service Included is a great read for anyone who dines in restaurants as well as for anyone who enjoys culinary essays, such as Bill Buford’s Heat or Tony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Dining out: The Strip Club

Hambone and I eat out a lot, but I do a pretty lousy job of blogging about our restaurant meals. Each time I sit down to write about that great meal we had the previous night, I always remember the three or four restaurant meals that I haven’t written about yet. Would it be fair to them if they were never mentioned before I pressed on?

Well, no more.
Last night Hambone and Spice ate at The Strip Club, a sizzling new St. Paul restaurant. For the record, I love this restaurant’s name, which definitely has sass, but mostly refers to the house special, a NY strip steak. The owners are Tim Nivers and Aaron Johnson, the dynamic duo behind the Town Talk Diner, the hip, no-reservations Minneapolis joint. J.D. Fratzke, whose menu we enjoyed last August at Muffuletta, is in the kitchen. At The Strip Club, as at Muffuletta, Fratzke offers as much local fare as he can, including grass-raised beef from Thousand Hills and beer from the Summit Brewing Co., which is the vehicle for steaming mussels.

The Strip Club is in a highly unlikely location—the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood of St. Paul. But this location grants an unexpected, well-framed view of downtown St. Paul—certainly one of the restaurant’s best assets. Inside, exposed brick walls have been painted a cream color, the ceiling and most trim is black. A brass-trimmed railing lining the upper-level balcony nods to the building’s Victorian (1885) roots. It’s a fun, if not a little dark, revamp of a mom-and-pop restaurant, located in a working-class neighborhood that is gaining popularity for the affordable housing it offers young families.

In addition to the NY strip steak, the dinner menu features a few salads, a long list of small plates, a handful of upscale burgers, and six or seven entrees. In our opinion, the small plates are the stars of the menu. We enjoyed the mussels, which were steamed in Summit pilsner and studded with crumbles of spicy, fennel-spiked sausage. Hambone and Spice make mussels from time to time and found this treatment to be a neat alternative to the Albarino and chorizo that we typically use. I’d love to try these at home.

The other small plate we tried, I’m not likely in this lifetime—the lifetime with small children—to make at home: duck confit. This meltingly soft duck was served no-frills—a whole leg for the diner to pick over, adorned with a simple, bitter frisee salad (that we ignored) and sweet roasted grapes, which served a near-perfect counterpoint to the salty duck. Hambone and Spice had a Proustian moment over that duck confit. We were transported to Bordeaux, France, December 1995 and a post-holiday, restorative meal of sautéed goose liver and grapes.

But I digress.

As for the entrees, they need some work. While tempting, to be sure, we passed on the romantic pork loin for two with mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Hambone took the strip steak with which you’re encouraged to order a topper, at an additional charge. He selected a compound butter studded with chopped escargot and garlic, an amazing way to enhance an entirely lackluster steak. The side-order fries could make a best in the Cities list, and if there was a best ketchup category, the Strip Club’s bacon version would win, no contest. Yup. Bacon. Ketchup.

I had the ahi tuna, which was cooked rare as I asked. Points awarded for execution, sure, but I didn’t love it with its accompanying barley risotto. The risotto was soupy, which is a desirable quality when Arborio rice is the main grain, but didn’t work with the barley. I would have preferred brighter flavors, such as citrus, with my ahi, rather than the earthy version, rich with mushrooms, on the menu.

There were a few low points. The wine list had many unfamiliar selections, which isn’t bad, since we enjoy an introduction to new bottles, but the markup was steep, killing our adventurous spirit. The desserts don’t merit further mention. Service was slow, which was fine since we didn’t mind lingering over dinner and each other’s company, but it would be an issue for the less forgiving. I forgot to request my negroni up, so it came in a lowball over ice.

The restaurant has only been open since mid-January, still it was packed and many walk-ins were chancing a table. The reviews have been fairly glowing, so who knows if the shortcomings will be addressed.

We will return, with friends in tow. We’ll request the table(s) in front, with the picture window and the great downtown view. We’ll order a bunch of small plates, including the deviled eggs and the foie gras and the fries with bacon ketchup, and we’ll drink local beer. My office is just a few minutes away in Lowertown, and Hambone’s office just a few minutes away from mine. And, I look forward to trying the burgers on the lunch menu.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

reading: Trail of Crumbs

For the past couple of weeks, I have been dipping into Kim Sunée's Trail of Crumbs. The New York Times called this a "compelling, confessional memoir," to which I take no exception. Part of the confessional is a coming-of-age, much of which centers around an intense affair with Olivier Baussan, the founder of L'Occitane, but also details a young person's universal search for a place in the world. Sunée was abandoned by her mother in a South Korean market at the age of three, giving her search additional meaning.

Nearly every page of
Sunée's story is made compelling by her confident and luscious writing. Descriptions of landscape, of meals prepared and eaten, of friends, of pain, and of love are ripe, full to bursting.

Most chapters end with recipes. I've never liked the use of this device in prose, even in culinary mysteries. I think it can make things a little precious, but something about Sunee's recipes caught my eye. Perhaps it was the spirit in which they were presented, as well as a nicely conversational tone. I flagged Wild Peaches Poaches in Lillet Blanc and Lemon Verbena, Quick-Fix Kimchi, Croque Madame, Jansson's Frestelse (Jansson's temptation—potatoes, cream, garlic, and anchovies—my favorite Swedish food), Almond-Saffron Cake (inspired by Santa Lucia buns)—among others. But, Uncle Kerry's Monday Red Beans and Rice forced me to run out and buy dried beans and a ham hock.

Midwestern born and raised, I'm about as far from the South, geographically and metaphysically, as you can get. But last April, I got a healthy dose of Creole food on the Mothership—for my money, and yours, New Orleans Jazz Fest has best festival food in the U.S.—and I haven't been able to get the meaty white beans off my mind since then. Now I know that meaty white beans are a different thing from red beans and rice, but when I found this recipe in a section nostalgic for food from Sunee's, I was inspired to make and eat something similar.

If you follow the recipe, which I did since I have no experience cooking vats of beans, it takes about two hours
to cook. While I was cooking, Hambone spoke to his Southern-born father, who, in addition to being thrilled that I would endeavor to make red beans and rice, advised that I let them cook a good long time so all the marrow would melt out of the ham hocks. So, although it hadn't been my plan, I let the beans cook for closer to four hours, occasionally adding water to keep the beans from getting too thick.

I thought the beans were heavenly—creamy and smoky and soul-satisfying. In her notes, Sunée
says you don't need to soak the beans, but I will next time as some were tough and undercooked—even after four hours. And next time, I'm going find some nice heirloom beans, for the sake of experimentation. (I'm sorry that my photography skills are sorely lacking so that these beans don't appear as appetizing as they could—you'll just have to trust me!)

Uncle Kerry's Monday Red Beans and Rice
Kim Sunée (Trail of Crumbs, Grand Central, 2008)

1-1/2 tablespoons butter
1 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 2 cups)

1 green bell pepper, chopped (about 1-1/2 cups)

4 celery ribs, chopped (about 1-1/2 cups)

3 garlic cloves, smashed

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper

1 smoked ham hock (about 3/4 pound) or pickled pork

1 (1-pound) bag dried kidney beans (soaked, if desired)

1 teaspoon liquid crab boil

1 teaspoon Creole seasoning

2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme

1 pound smoked sausage (such as andouille or kielbasa)

2 tablespoons cornstarch (optional)

Hot sauce, to taste

Garnishes: green onions, shallots in vinegar, parsley

Heat butter on medium high in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add onion, bell pepper, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes or until soft. Add garlic, salt, and pepper and cook 3 more minutes. Add smoked ham hock, beans, liquid crab boil, Creole seasoning, and thyme and stir. Add enough water (about 2 quarts) to cover beans. Stir, bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and let simmer stirring occasionally, about 1-1/2 hours.

If beans get too thick, add more water, about 1/2 cup at a time. Add sausage to pot and let beans cook another 30 minutes or until tender. (For creamy beans, Sunée like to smash some of them on the side of the pot with a wooden spoon. Her uncle Kerry mixes 2 tablespoons cornstarch with cold water and adds to sauce.) Season to taste with more salt, pepper, or hot sauce. Garnish, if desired. Serve with hot boiled rice and shallots in vinegar (combine 3 to 4 tablespoons rice or white wine vinegar, 2 thinly sliced shallots, and herbes de Provence or fresh thyme leaves in a bowl and stir to combine.)