Heartland serves local, sustainable, organic for $12 or less


To kick off 2012, we're highlighting 12 of the best dishes under $12 in the Twin Cities. Scroll down to view the complete list.

We should all be so lucky to live in Lenny Russo's neighborhood. As the executive chef of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market, which he co-owns with his wife, Mega Hoehn, Russo focuses his efforts locally--on the people who live and work closest to home, and the products they consume and create.

With a menu that hinges completely on the bounty at hand, our favorite items under $12 will be here today and gone tomorrow. But with a sure-handed chef at the helm (Russo has earned back-to-back nominations for Best Chef: Midwest from the James Beard Foundation), we know more masterful meals are just a harvest away.

When Heartland opened in 2002, it was under the banner of local, sustainable, and organic. Initially, that may have seemed like a unique way to operate. But for Russo it came quite naturally. "My wife and I have a certain set of principles by which we live our lives," he says. "And we've carried them through in our business."

Russo has strict standards in place to ensure the integrity of his ingredients. And for the suppliers who can attain that high bar, there are rewards. Russo is loyal, and he's willing to work with whatever they can provide--letting their goods guide his choices. "When you're working with small farmers, they have a limited quantity," he explains. "That's why the menu changes everyday."

But local, sustainable, and organic extend beyond the walls of the restaurant. In 2010, Russo opened the Farm Direct Market to make the foods he cooks with in the Heartland kitchen available for use at home. And as an active participant in several organizations--including the Organic Advisory Taskforce for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and the Board of Directors for the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce--he has an opportunity to make an even greater impact.

But regardless how far the idea reaches, it will always come back to the food. And Russo's food includes lots of $12-and-under options--particularly if you grab a seat at the bar. The ever-fluctuating menu is appreciated from a dining standpoint, but it makes selecting specific dishes a little more challenging.

That said, a few things remain constant: each night, Heartland serves up a seasonal soup (two in fact), a selection of local cheeses, and some of the best charcuterie in town. So let's start with a starter: Soup's on.

In recent days, Russo has featured a Sugar Pumpkin Soup--which he begins by roasting pumpkin with oil and a mix of spices (nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, salt, and freshly ground pepper). Once the pumpkin is ready, he cooks butter, onions, garlic, and brown sugar, and then deglazes the pan to pick up every last bit of flavor clinging to the bottom.

Then he stirs in more spices, the pumpkin, some homemade vegetable stock, heavy cream, and bay leaves, and finally knocks the heat back and lets it simmer. When we sampled it, Russo was pairing it with a nice apple syrup that added a tangy tartness, and some pepitas (tiny green pumpkin seeds) that gave it a spicy jolt. At $10, it was mm, mm, good.

Next up: charcuterie. On any given night, Russo's meat selection can span the gamut from pâtés and terrines to prosciutto and sausages. During our visit, there were two $12 options: Duck Liver Pâté and Wild Boar Braunschweiger.

"The duck liver is marinated in milk a couple of days," he says. "Then it's slowly cooked in butter, deglazed with Madeira and brandy, and we add some fresh thyme." Next, apple and shallot are pureed and emulsified with whole unsalted butter.

Everything then takes a trip through the food mill and is immediately cooled in an ice bath. After it's completely set, it's served with nutmeg sour cream, a sweet potato chutney, and some thin and crunchy sunflower-corn croustades.

The Braunschweiger is a combination of pork, pork liver, onions, sea salt, and sugar--which is then seasoned with half the spice rack, and laced with fresh sage and marjoram.

The texture is soft--not nearly as dense as the pâté. And it's beautifully complemented by a Summit Ale apple mustard, confit baby potatoes (don't let fancy French words scare you, they're just potatoes), and pepita rye bread. The apple mustard brings out the mild sweet and spiciness of the sausage, and it goes exceptionally well with the nutty rye.

And last but not least, the cheese course. It's our $12-and-under pick not just because it's delicious, but because it puts Russo's farmers front and center.

Typically, he sources cheese from right here in Minnesota, as well as neighboring states (Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan). One of his many suppliers is the Carr Valley Cheese Company, and two of its cheeses (both priced at $12) have graced the menu in the last week.

Located in the middle of Wisconsin, Carr Valley is owned by the Cook family. The company has been around for more than a century and still makes cheese by hand. It also uses caves to age some of its products, which can intensify flavor and add complexity.

This weekend, the Carr Valley Benedictine was featured (comprised of fresh sheep, goat, and cow's milk cheeses). And prior to that, the Cocoa Cardona goat cheese was offered. The Cardona is firmer, but doesn't taste as sharp as a traditional goat cheese, and the cocoa-rubbed rind gives it a dark color and hint of bitterness.

Both plates simply, yet definitively, represent Russo's point of view: fresh from farms, direct to dish. The way local food was meant to be.

Top 12 dishes under $12 112 Eatery: Tagliatelle with Foie Gras Meatballs Bar La Grassa: Gnocchi with Cauliflower and Orange Haute Dish: Biscuits and Gravy Heartland: Cheese Course La Belle Vie: Pappardelle with Rabbit Bolognese Lucia's: Farmers' Salad Meritage: Crispy Roasted Chicken Thighs Piccolo: Scrambled Brown Eggs with Pickled Pig's Feet Restaurant Alma: Chard Soufflé Saffron: Fried Cauliflower and Slow-Cooked Green Beans Sea Change: Arctic Char Tilia: Potted Meat

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