Triumph in the Heartland

Fine-dining northern lights open affordable annexes

Lucia's Bakery and Take Home
1428 W. 31st St., Minneapolis
612.825.9800
www.lucias.com

Heartland
1806 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul
651.699.3536.
www.heartlandrestaurant.com

People will occasionally be real buttinskis, and demand of me at parties, If you're so smart, why don't you work in the real news? Well, here's one good reason: Only when you write about food do you ever get to report such sunny, good-news, win-win situations as I am pleased to announce today. Both Lucia's and Heartland have recently expanded to offer lower cost dine-in alternatives to their main white-tablecloth operations, and both are superb additions to the local food scene. Happy days! Tra la la! I could sing! Heartbreakingly, local courts have issued standing orders safeguarding the citizenry from such, as they call them, felony assaults, so I'll just have to type.

Attainable heights: Lucia Watson in her affordable new annex
Bill Kelley
Attainable heights: Lucia Watson in her affordable new annex

Location Info

Map

Heartland Restaurant

1806 St. Clair Ave.
St Paul, MN 55105-1936

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Macalester/Groveland

It's an uncanny coincidence, the very two exact restaurants in each of the Twin Cities that have most articulately championed the use of local ingredients, the two restaurants that have been most distinctively Minnesotan, the two restaurants that have been most fervent about being "local" in the face of dire inconvenience, financial uphill battles, and name-calling on the playgrounds, both of them pushing out into adjoining storefronts so that folks on a budget or without a special occasion can partake of the homegrown magic. What are the odds? Yet, before I paint myself into a corner here, I'd best make it clear that the two restaurants have nothing really whatsoever to do with one another, except that they adhere to the same philosophy.

Lucia Watson, for one, has been operating her restaurant in Uptown, Lucia's, since 1985. That is to say, for so long that I'm tempted to tag her with one of those titles like "grande dame of Minnesota cuisine" or "local eminence," though that would tend to make her sound far older and creakier than she is. Suffice it to say that her 1994 book, Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland, which she co-wrote with Beth Dooley, put a name to the idea of the cuisine that can be made of the things that grow around here: the fishes, the grains, the morels, and, above all, the products of local farms.

Like any good Midwesterner, however, Watson denies such personal importance. Heartland cooking "was something that was here all along," she told me when I spoke to her on the phone for this story. "It's how my grandma cooked, but maybe it got a little lost and misled by products and instant food for a while, so maybe my book helped define it a little, or put a contemporary spin on it, so it could come back to what it was. The good news is that once you start using local ingredients there's no going back, because the ingredients are so good."

If the exact nature of heartland cuisine still seems blurry to you, a good working definition might be that it depends upon things that grow or live here, either on the farm (meatloaf, roast chicken, mashed potatoes, apples, an individual farmer's special bacon) or in the sky, forest, prairie, or water (duck, morels, grouse, fiddlehead ferns, ramps, lake or river trout).

Lucia's new bakery leans heavily on the farm half of the equation. The place opened about two months ago in a storefront directly next door to her wine bar, and, in addition to coffee and classic bakery items like pies, coffeecakes, and breads, it serves, cafeteria-style, all of the basics of the American heartland kitchen six days a week, breakfast through dinner.

It couldn't be more pleasant. In the mornings they have all the coffee regulars: fresh-baked muffins, sticky buns, and crepes ($3, with Nutella, jam, or ham and cheese). As noon approaches, sandwiches and other savories appear, including the craveable Tim Fisher bacon sandwich ($5.95) with crisp peppery bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, lettuce, and enough garlicky aioli to make it restaurant-indulgent. The soups are the same high quality ones they serve in the restaurant: $4.25 gets you a super-sized mug of one of the day's several options.

I tried an ocean chowder brimming with flakes of whitefish and salmon, rounded out with squiggles of mussel, made thick with falling-apart bits of potatoes, and given herbal lilt with celery and strands of dill. It came topped with a handful of giant, herb-crisped, perfectly salt-glazed, seeded croutons, and by the time I had devoured two of these crispy critters I was nearly convinced I had stumbled upon the best under-$5 meal in Uptown. But then I tried the squash curry soup, which just glowed like a neon tangerine from its cup and tasted like autumn intensified to a near-breaking point, and I was quite definite on the point. Then I was wrong, because I hadn't yet tried the Parmesan polenta, a big triangle of the creamy, comforting corn cake, seared until the edges were crisp with brown butter, and served with the sauce of the day, such as the chunky tomato stew with fresh basil that I tried. For only $3.95 a plate!

Meatloaf, made interesting with bits of bacon and onion and served with a savory dried cherry sauce, can be had by the slice for $5.95, or with a big pile of silky mashed sweet potatoes for $7.95. Mushroom and beef Stroganoff is made intense with a variety of mushrooms, including peppery shiitakes, and given rib-sticking comfort by big yellow egg noodles.

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