Pride of the Prairie

Heartland serves purely Midwestern ingredients in pure French style

I found the meats and fishes to be more erratically prepared. Some dishes are quite successful, such as a light and plump catfish dusted in wild rice flour and served in salmon broth with baby arugula; it was blowsy and airy in an appealing and unusual way, showcasing the creamier aspect of the whiskered fish. But some dishes were distinctly odd, such as breads and shortcakes that were served doughy and underdone, and the kitchen has a tendency to oversalt things. One night's rabbit had a lovely crisp skin, but the meat was oversalted, and the accompanying wheat berry risotto was one of a few things I encountered that were too salty to eat. I think this is a fairly frequent injury in the profession, though; just as certain racket pros get tennis elbow, certain kitchen lifers slowly have their salt sensitivity ground down. I feel reasonably certain that the kitchen can get this in hand, as Russo is such a perfectionist.

And the restaurant's other charms are legion, like the service, the reservations, the glassware, the wine list, the teapots, the coffee, the hospitality that just reverberates through the room. When I had friends call to make reservations, Russo called them back and chatted amiably about the coming meal. He seems to circle through the room constantly, chatting with nearly every guest. The wine list could hardly be better for a brand-new 40-seat neighborhood restaurant. Everything on the list that's priced under $50 (most are) is around $10 over retail, and everything above $50 tends to come in right around retail, or less. So, to consider just a high and low: A bottle of the charming Jacquesson et Fils nonvintage brut is on the wine list for $34, and it retails for around $25; the regal '92 Bollinger Grande Année is priced at $95, and I think you'd be hard pressed to find it for less--especially after James Bond made it his tipple of choice in that last flick. The list is strong in American reds and French whites and has enough budget options of interest to keep it a neighborhood destination. The flinty, anise-edged Shooting Star "Blue Franc" Lemberger, for example, is $18; the Henri Pelle Menetou-Salon is $22. One whole wall of the simple arts-and-crafts room that is Heartland is lined with Riedel stemware in all its shapes and sizes, and getting one of those pricey, wine-enhancing glasses is just another detail that makes you feel terribly special.

As does the exemplary service: I had nearly forgotten how relaxing and soothing the rituals of good service are, when you can just sink away and have all your needs met. Heartland made me remember. The forks come, the forks go. Waiters check back but don't hover. The wine in the glasses goes down, it goes up. You merely sit and chat and eat. It's a miracle! The coffee service is better than any place I can think of: A silvery tray with silvery sugar tongs and pots of cream and sugar: Coffee is individual estate and comes in your own oh-so-fresh press pot. Tea, from local treasure Tea Source, comes in clever pots especially designed to prevent oversteeping. It feels terrifically luxurious to contemplate all these little gadgets and indulgences at the end of the meal. And when the bill comes--maybe $75 for two with a bottle of wine, maybe $110?--it's hard not to notice that it costs about what, oh, say, Joe's Crab Shack does, but contains an infinitely richer experience, full of thoughtful local exploration. Like the Wisconsin sweet potato pie I forgot to mention, which had the weight of a winter vegetable, but the fragrance of a Christmas dream. An unusual direction for a Jersey boy, no? No, says Russo. "I'm so sick of hearing about how great everyone else is around the country, and how much we suck here." And thus the value of cross-cultural pollination: Sometime you really need a bit of Jersey spirit to make a Minnesota night.

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