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."

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.

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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