Heartland launches ambitous complex in Lowertown

St. Paul's most lauded restaurant thinks big

Russo says that the idea for the market, which will essentially function as a larder for the restaurant, grew out of customers asking where they might get specialty foods such as rendered duck fat or microgreens, but it also has wider ambitions to bolster the ever-expanding local food system. For starters, Russo says, the Farm Direct Market offers farmers an opportunity to expand their markets—for those who already sell retail at the St. Paul Farmers' Market, it expands their sale hours (9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday); for those who sell wholesale, it gives them a retail outlet. Russo says he hopes that one day the market can also function as an in-town distribution center for area farmers looking to ease the logistical burden of connecting supply with demand.

So you could pick up ingredients and take them home, but why not take a seat in the restaurant and let Russo take care of you? Heartland's daily-changing menu looks the same as always: It still has two fixed-price meat-based and vegetarian menus, plus a short list of a la carte small plates, large plates, and sides. Careful readers will notice that Russo has trimmed most of the provenance-related adjectives out of his characteristically "blabbermouthy" descriptions.

Russo has a knack for introducing diners to less-common foodstuffs that are found right here in the region but rarely seen on supermarket shelves--ground cherries, duck eggs, and crayfish, for starters. He's serving wild boar braunschweiger, for example, which tastes less livery than the typical stuff. In chop form, the boar meat resembles a chewier, gamier pork; when I had it, the meat was glazed with a lovely sweet-salty broth piqued with notes of apple cider and caramelized onions. Steak-lovers can branch out from beef to the bison rib eye, which closely resembles the former except with a slightly deeper, wilder flavor.

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

Overall, Russo's style tends to be straightforward and no-fuss. "I spend a lot of money on good-quality ingredients and try not to fuck them up," he says. Freshwater fish, such as rainbow and lake trout, are cooked, skin-on, until their flesh flakes to the touch but stays buttery and soft, and then garnished to accentuate but not overpower their flavor. The rainbow trout was one of the best dishes I ate, paired with a late-summer harvest of sweet corn, roasted peppers, tomato, and chard. I also liked Russo's kale, which I lapped up as if it were chocolate sauce (a testament to the power of duck fat) and a plate of tempura green beans that rivaled those of Japanese restaurants.

The tough, cottony meat of commodity chickens has turned lots of diners off to the ubiquitous chicken breast, but Russo reintroduces it in free-range form with a coveted slot on his entrée list. The version I had, paired with a smoked tomato coulis and goat cheese polenta, was well executed—the chicken actually tasted like chicken—but I think there are better dishes for $24.

At Heartland, the misfires are few. I only encountered one, in fact: a thin-sliced duck prosciutto that had a skunky, off-flavor—something like decomposing leaves with a bitter metallic twinge of rancid fat. A more likely complaint will likely be leveraged at a handful plates that taste fine but are more remembered for their sticker shock.

I am not one to complain about the small portions at upscale restaurants or joke about having to hit a fast-food drive-through for dessert to fill up. (Speaking of desserts, if you're a fan of decadent ones—rich, gooey, and super sweet—the typical Heartland cheese plate or plum tart probably won't satiate.) But I felt for those hearty eaters when I forked into a baby lettuce salad, which consisted of a softball-sized stack of pristine leaves, coated with a whisper of creamy dressing, and layered atop a beet-slice pedestal. Certainly commodity foodstuffs never reflect their true cost of production—or, as Russo likes to put it, that there's no such thing as cheap food, and you'll end up paying for it through doctor's bills or environmental clean up. But the salad's $10 price left the impression that the whole sustainable food movement might be, well, unsustainable.

Which is too bad, because, as recent change has shown, the practice of ethical eating continues to become more and more widespread, and there is growing demand for the foods Russo has, for all these years, embraced. A while back, before the word locavore had crossed anyone's lips, Russo says that one of his old business partners asked him if he thought Heartland was headed in the right direction—was local food the right thing to do? "I'm sure I'm doing the right thing, but I'm not sure I'm doing the smart thing," Russo replied, ever true to his character.

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