When Hoboken-raised chef Lenny Russo told his friends back East that he was taking the helm of a Wayzata restaurant on Lake Minnetonka, nobody asked, “Where?”
“This might sound grandiose,” Russo says, “But Italy has Lake Como. And we have Lake Minnetonka.”
The comparison might not be so far-fetched. Just as aristocrats have flocked to the bucolic shores of Italy’s third-largest lake since the Roman Empire, so have relaxation-seeking daytrippers decamped to Minnesota’s ninth-largest and deepest lake since Minnetonka’s first tourism boom of the 1880s.
Last month, Russo took the reins as food and beverage director at ninetwentyfive, a farm-to-table restaurant at Hotel Landing, the first hotel to open in Wayzata in a century. With executive chef and Spoon and Stable alum Daniel Cataldo running the kitchen, Russo’s focusing on revamping what was a huge menu into an experience that embraces the lake.
A James Beard award-nominated chef perhaps best known for his years as chef-owner of St. Paul’s Heartland Restaurant (R.I.P.), Russo may be the first person to compare one of Minneapolis’ tony Western suburbs to one of Italy’s fabled resorts. Yet a sneak peek at his ambitious new menu and redesign, which aims to embrace the historic lake resort location, suggests he might not be the last. (And, harkening to Russo’s Italian roots, the signature vegetarian dish will be a sheep-milk ricotta agnolotti.)
Since his early days at two iconic Minneapolis restaurants -- the Loring and the New French Cafe -- Russo has been inspired by, and committed to, sourcing ingredients from local farmers and purveyors -- working relationships cultivated, in some cases, over several decades. At ninetwentyfive, he’ll take that sustainable, regionally sourced ethos up a notch. Have you ever tasted fennel-cured Lake Superior whitefish, served in typical Danish style, with brown bread salad? (We’re talking not just “house-made,” but homemade: Cataldo’s a crackerjack baker, Russo brags, who creates the loaves from his scratch sourdough starter.) Or what about bison tartare with rose hips, sumac, prickly ash, and quail egg?
These dishes represent what Russo calls “hyperlocal food,” his current culinary passion. “These ingredients are indigenous, not cultivated,” he explains. That means lobster bisque is out, and freshwater fish chowder is in. The story of the menu, Russo says, is ultimately “a story about the lake.”
As they roll out these new dishes, Russo and Cataldo are revising the restaurant’s once massive menu, and refining the wine list to make it more food-focused. Expect the restaurant to go dark for nine days beginning April 30, when staff will hunker down to retrain, refresh, and ultimately relaunch on May 10. (Yes, that means fancy new resort-inspired uniforms, too.)
“People who come here want to experience the lake, want to experience Minnesota,” Russo muses. “We’re sitting on top of some of the best ingredients in the world. We don’t need to reach very far.”
ninetwentyfive at Hotel Landing
925 Lake St. E., Wayzata