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.

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.

There are a number of oft-changing deli salads in the case that will serve as appetizers, such as the one made with roasted beets, kale, and fennel in a balsamic vinaigrette. Or another of cubed apples, thick spinach leaves, carrots, and almonds in a mustard-apple-cider vinaigrette. (These salads cost $8.99 a pound; an appetizer portion costs about $2.)

Glasses of wine--a single white or a single red, frequently changing--are available for $4.95 or $5.95. The pastries are very good: A chocolate pot de crème was just sweet enough to be dessert, but just bitter enough to stay interesting through a whole cup of coffee. Individual apple-crumble pies and key lime tartlets are nothing short of adorable.

As a takeout bakery Lucia's Bakery has the works: crisp baguettes, intense sourdoughs, crumbly scones, and much more. With 24-hour notice they can even make whole chocolate cakes, pies, trays of bars, or dozens of cookies for you to try to pass off as your own at your next dinner party or school bake sale. (When I've been there, single pies in the case have run between $16.95 and $24.) In the evenings, whole roasted chickens can be ordered to take out for $10.

The little place has one glaring flaw: It has only nine tables, so I'm reasonably convinced I'll never get in the door again. It's the perfect, perfect place when you've got half an hour to kill in Uptown before a movie, or you're solo and want something tastier than fast food, or if you're recovering from an overlong hair appointment. Actually, is that an alternate definition for living in Uptown these days, recovering from an overlong hair appointment?

Well, no matter. I know for a fact that for every Sunday in perpetuity the joint is going to be crammed with moist blondes in strollers, architects, attorneys, gardening consultants, and all the Uptown usual suspects, only a very few of whom will know or care that the squash soup they're sipping is more than a soup, but is actually the culmination of a once-radical way of relating to our political, economic, and cultural environment.

 

Luckily, there's always room in St. Paul. Well, except for maybe the magical hour between 6:30 and 7:30 on Friday and Saturday nights. Did you know that in the rest of the country restaurateurs count on seating a table two or even three times in the course of an evening? Not here. Here, people want to eat at six or seven or not at all. I think maybe the babysitters are to blame. Possibly the babysitters' parents. Or maybe it's early cheerleading practice?

I digress. The point is that the original impetus for Lenny Russo, owner and chef of Heartland, to open a wine bar attached to his restaurant was to deal with those two weekend crunch hours and allow for overflow seating. Happily, the 30-seat bar, which opened three months ago, quickly evolved into something far more interesting. It's now the place to go in Minnesota if you want cutting-edge northern heartland fine cooking, but don't have the inclination, or budget, for a full sit-down blowout.

I base this evaluation on a truly head-turning series of snacks I had at the wine bar recently. I tried a Yorkshire pork and rabbit terrine wrapped in house-cured bacon, served in a black currant Cumberland sauce alongside house-made carrot pickle planks ($10). The terrine was pure, light, meatily sweet, and finely attuned to the weight and lilt tightrope that a terrine must navigate to succeed, while the sweet and tart black currant and port wine sauce supported it as elegantly as black velvet beneath jewelry.

A chicken liver and sage mousse ($10) was so silky, sensuous, and tautly arranged between the poles of grassy sage and irony liver that it practically vibrated on the tongue. The accompanying tiny, toasty wheat crackers and delicate relish of red pears, macerated raisins, and mustard only made the liver seem more plush and impossibly flavorful. Lest you think the wine bar here is simply a carnivore's playpen, I also tried an excellent white carrot soup inset with a spoonful of a rough-textured concoction of chopped hazelnuts, lavender, and maple syrup ($8). The earthy carrots were given amazing life and liveliness by their flowery, unusual counterpoint; it was an inspired dish.

Heartland's new pastry chef, Jack Fulton, is also doing some excellent work. He's been with the restaurant about six months, and his pumpkin-cream Napoleon with a jam made of wild strawberries and cranberries, a roasted Seckel pear half, pumpkin butter, a pear puree, and brown-sugar braised cranberries ($8) was one of those pastries that does so much work in four square inches it makes you appreciate the possibilities of pastry anew. It was playfully crisp and vanishingly light, yet perked up with side notes of tart and earth.

The wine list is a grab bag of interesting, critically well regarded but affordable wines by the glass from around the world. Most of the two dozen options are priced $6 to $10 a glass.

Still, let's get back to the carnivore's playpen angle, since it's there that the wine bar is doing the cutting-edge work. Other charcuterie options from the recent menu included smoked lamb ribs with blackberry catsup ($10) and a house-made Berkshire pork sausage with grilled sweet onions and a horseradish and duck demi-glace ($10). All this local charcuterie has arisen on the wine bar menu mainly because of Heartland's dedication to working with farmers and buying whole animals: Russo routinely does his own butchering of pork, lamb, poultry, and such, and after he pieces out the premium parts for his fine-dining restaurant customers, he has lots left.

"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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