Heirloom captures the spirit of seasonal Midwestern cooking

At Heirloom Kitchen, you can (and should) make a meal of bar snacks alone.

At Heirloom Kitchen, you can (and should) make a meal of bar snacks alone. Lucy Hawthorne

Everything about Heirloom Kitchen is restrained.

The room is cloaked in soft, almost feminine pastels. Servers don’t walk or talk, they skate and patter. Cooks at the open Chef’s Bar are expected to be kind and gracious, instead of “angry pirate chefs,” says chef and owner Wyatt Evans.

Aside from a paper route, Evans has only ever worked in restaurant kitchens. Dishwasher, cook, chef, he’s done it all. He worked longer than a decade for the company that owns W.A. Frost, St. Paul’s iconic American restaurant on Cathedral Hill. For six of those years he served as the restaurant’s executive chef.

At Frost, Evans wound up being adopted into what he calls a “fraternity” of important chefs, including Lenny Russo of Heartland, Russell Klein of Meritage, and Leonard Anderson of the newish Tongue in Cheek in east St. Paul. Evans practically has Minnesota pedigree (and humility) running through his veins.

Like those other vaunted chefs, Evans thinks deeply about his cooking. He tells me he tries to put something of the past, present, and future on every plate.

“This is why ‘Heirloom.’ What is an heirloom tomato, anyway? It’s that someone thought enough about it to save the seed and pass it down to their children and grandchildren. I’m hoping I can create something for children and future generations here.”

Short ribs

Short ribs Lucy Hawthorne

Driven by season and region, the cooking at Heirloom can almost take on a moody quality. And now that it’s February, when nature is at its stingiest, devoted chefs must be at their savviest. There are no kaleidoscopic tomatoes or fresh herbs bursting with essential oil. Instead, there are meat and poultry, pickles and preserves, and rugged vegetables that must be coaxed with technique in order to shine.

Heirloom’s cooking is at its best when Evans is tinkering and having fun, so put a bottle of wine on the table and let snacks and small plates rain down like toys tumbling from a box. Don’t try to make too cohesive a meal, or try to find too much framework in this menu. If you’re ready to surrender to that mood, even in mean old February, you’re going to like it here.

Arrive early and grab a seat at the bar. Come really early if you can, as early as 4 p.m., because the daily list of bar snacks is so good and so cheap, it’s a little like stealing.

Wee two-bite chicken wings are sweet-spicy meat candy. Sturdy bread, grilled until charred at the edges, gets a blanket of soothing pork fat brightened with pickled onions. N’duja sausage dip, that funky, spreadable Spanish concoction of pureed pig parts and spicy peppers, is served in a little jar with a side of house-made wheat crackers. These alone could keep me happy.

Then there’s yet more rustic toast with lush rivulets of chicken liver mousse and green-pink pops of microgreens and more of those pickled onions that seem to make everything in life better. Or try the cheesy gougeres (when was the last time you got to order one of these cocktail canapés in a restaurant?) stuffed with rich squash “butter.” In fact, order the entire snack board — you can’t go wrong with any of it — and then and only then move on. Consider that each dish hovers around $5, and you may never get past that list, which would be a fine way to dine.

Rooted staunchly in Minnesota winter, some of the cooking, especially now, can bump against the austere. Evans tells me that if he can help it, he’d rather not put more than four or five elements on a plate. Perhaps those ingredients have been manipulated in some way, but he believes deeply in purity.

[Click here to view our full slideshow of Heirloom and its dishes.]

Take the smoked whitefish salad with pickled cauliflower, yogurt, and raisins. The yogurt is made in-house with the highest quality grass-fed organic milk he can find, and then he exercises restraint with the rest of the dish, letting the local whitefish shine with only pops of salt, brine, and sweetness to finish. My only complaint is that there wasn’t enough of it.

Evans readily admits that with this restrained approach, there are going to be some misses. I notice those most in the “Course 3” section of the menu, where meat and traditional proteins reside. Since the menu is designed to be mixed and matched, entrees are not served with the traditional veg-starch-protein. If you want a starch, then you can order, say, a rye pasta or a seed and grain porridge from the more starch-heavy “Course 2” section, and then add a short rib or a pork neck from “Course 3.”

The problem with the strategy is that portion sizes tend to be smallish, and the end result could easily send you into the $30 range if you attempt to cobble together a traditional dinner.

This is why I say drop such expectations at the door. Let your typical hankering for a braised short rib wait for another day. Evans says he likes this dish, because he sources it from Osceola’s Peterson family farm, so it’s the highest quality available, and he wants to respect it by fooling around with it minimally. But pairing it with little more than delicata squash, oyster mushroom, and horseradish (flavors you’ve had before, all over Minnesota in winter) feels a little like wallowing in February rather than putting on a pair of glittery boots and nudging the season into more celebratory territory.

Instead, find the spirit of Heirloom in the meat pie, something of a signature dish. While we’ve all had a pot pie, we haven’t had one quite like this. A beautifully woven pie-crust basket is pretty enough to sit on a curio cabinet. Shredded chicken and pork are placed gently and elegantly inside, like yarn tangled in a knitting basket. Green tomatoes sit at the side to remind us that perfect red tomatoes are but a fleeting glimmer in Minnesota. So, we’ll make do with what we can, thank you. Racy flashes of fruity jam showcase a time when we could enjoy such things as red fruit, and a swipe of lively mustard keeps it all from verging too far into the comfort zone.

It’s so pretty you’ll want to hold onto it, preserve it like an heirloom. But food is nothing if not ethereal, so you’ll surrender and devour it instead, until it’s nothing but a memory. Then, pass the good news onto a friend or make a plan to head back for another, soon.

Past, present, future. Easy as a meat pie.

2186 Marhsall Ave. St. Paul