Triumph in the Heartland

Fine-dining northern lights open affordable annexes

"We always made terrines and things like that," Russo told me, when I called him to compliment him on his remarkable charcuterie. "The thing was, we could always make more than we could sell. Before [the wine bar opened] I'd just fill up the freezer with ground pheasant, ground boar, lamb tongues, goat shoulder--now I have somewhere to sell it.

"A friend of mine came in, and she said: 'Lenny, that's a half-rack of lamb ribs, what are you doing selling it for 10 bucks!' I said, 'That's 10 bucks more than the restaurant was making when I was serving it as employee meal.'" You know, it almost makes you feel bad for the employees. Almost.

"I guess we've done a good job in the dining room preparing people for what they might see" in the bar, Russo told me. "Nobody has been shocked to sit down, pick up the menu, and find there are no onion rings. A lot of people have said, 'It's a bar, aren't you going to do a hamburger?' But we're not trying to compete with the Groveland Tap. We just want to do what we do, and have fun with it. It seems to be working. We've had a couple Saturday nights when it's standing room only in there."

Standing room only? In always-room-for-more St. Paul? At a place that specializes in weird, complicated foods like terrine? Golly, I guess this means I actually have some real news to report. It might have been 20 years in the making, but it's beginning to look like the idea of northern heartland cooking is suddenly less radical and wacky, and is simply becoming popular, liked, and, in the ultimate Midwestern compliment, not even particularly noticed.

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