Heartland launches ambitous complex in Lowertown

St. Paul's most lauded restaurant thinks big

Just a few years ago, Minneapolis's dining scene boomed at the pace of the country's housing market: The only place to go was up. Restaurants were opening faster than you could say "Check, please," with one ambitious project following the next. Westside chefs experimented with imported ingredients, fusion techniques, and chemicals that transformed a foodstuff's very structure. Each new theater, museum, or luxury hotel debuted with its own splashy eatery, luring cheflebrities the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

And then, as you all well know, the champagne bubble popped. High-buck chefs departed. Doors closed. Everything scaled back.

Meanwhile, across the river, St. Paul's dining scene spent the last decade on a more conservative track. Growth was slow but steady, and most of the nicer restaurants were known less for being exciting than reliable. For a while, Minneapolis was looking like the birthplace of innovative concepts—gourmet beer pub grub, locavore Latin soul, tequila bar chic, kid-friendly global eclectic—while St. Paul was simply the secondary market for expansion. After St. Paul opened outposts of Minneapolis's Bulldog, Brasa, Barrio, and Pop, it developed a reputation as a culinary copycat.

Heartland's market offers the same 
ingredients the chef uses in his restaurant
Jana Freiband
Heartland's market offers the same ingredients the chef uses in his restaurant

But at least St. Paul could always hang its chef's hat on Heartland, opened by chef Lenny Russo and his wife Mega Hoehn in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood in 2002. The classy, art deco dining room (and later, adjacent wine bar) served haute Midwest cuisine way before it was hip. Russo has been sourcing from local farmers since some of them used draft horses instead of tractors. He butchered whole animals, made everything from scratch, and, for his efforts, received rave reviews. This year, Russo became the first St. Paul chef to become a James Beard Foundation Award finalist.

Now in his early 50s, Russo decided that he needed a plan for the upcoming years in which he will no longer be able to work 100-hour weeks in the restaurant. And his seemingly counterintuitive solution was to expand his operation.

To do so, Russo and his partners secured the lower levels of Lowertown's Market House, a 1902 brick warehouse with condos in its upper levels. The space had charm to burn, with its soaring atrium ceiling, rustic stonework, and heavy beams, but it was in foreclosure and needed significant upgrades—the cast-iron corner stairs alone required $40,000 worth of work. In late July, Heartland reopened in its new home, which is right across the street from the St. Paul Farmer's Market, reflecting the restaurant's local food focus. "It's in the wheelhouse of our demographic," Russo explains.

The main dining room has gorgeous windows overlooking Fifth Street, with a subdued color palette of gray paint and dark wood furnishings. One wall is paneled with reclaimed barn wood and looks like a more controlled version of George Morrison's driftwood collage at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It's an elegant space, marred only by its inability to muffle the cries of, say, the cackling group of book clubbers I sat next to one night. "Try the wild boar," one shrieked. "It kind of freaks me out," the other hollered back. From the other end of the table, this non sequitur: "Those Edina people use coupons—they have to pay for all the good schools." If you're looking for privacy, book the lone, tucked-away table in the corner that's reminiscent of the old Heartland's alcove nook.

The main dining room is roughly the size of the old one, but the restaurant's operations now extend to several more rooms and a second level. There are private banquet and meeting areas and a cutaway floor that offers a glimpse into the lower-level commissary kitchen for butchery and charcuterie making, among other things. (During the dinner hour, there hasn't been much to see down there so far, except coolers and racks. Though one night I did spot several curing hams and a couple of tubs full of ground meat and stock bones.)

The new Heartland has a full liquor license and a large bar area, but its open floorplan feels a little awkward and unmoored, especially when compared to the cozy, narrow wine bar in the old space. For those who want a closer look at the cooks, three tables are right next to the kitchen, though they're not exactly the most glamorous seats, between the harsh florescent lighting, the utilitarian flooring, and the sightlines of shelving and storage.

Amidst all this, the most noteworthy addition is Heartland's Farm Direct Market, where diners can take home the same raw ingredients (meats, produce, etc.) used at the restaurant, as well as house-made, value-added products such as stocks, soups, preserves, charcuterie, baked goods, and grab-and-go prepared fare. (Heartland has branded many of these items under its own private label, and selling those wares more widely is part of Russo's plan for his post-restaurant years.) Though Russo has previously run large, multifaceted operations for W.A. Frost and the Guthrie, this is the first time he's had total control of a project of such scope, which he admits is probably a better fit for his intense personality. "It's difficult for me to roll with the punches," he says. "Sometimes I'm punching back."

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