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Is Heartland Wine Bar the right concept, in the right place, right now?

The ball hat on our counter guy might be the most apropos thing about Heartland Wine Bar

The ball hat on our counter guy might be the most apropos thing about Heartland Wine Bar

Lenny Russo is one of our town's savviest, most experienced chefs. He was one of the first to look at our rich Midwestern bounty and say to himself: "You know what? What we've got here is enough. It's more than enough. I can work with this. We've got so much!" And he went forth and created an empire on the idea that the flora and fauna of our very own hometown was just the thing to make high cuisine — he didn't need no stinkin' mangoes or out-of-season strawberries or cuttlefish. He's our godfather of upper Midwest cuisine. 

And for years he's been laboring for this cause, having recently returned from the World Expo in Milan, where he exhibited on a platform of the Native American cuisines of the upper Midwest, and for a long time he offered all of this bounty to you, the end user, at his Heartland Direct Farm Market, where all the same products he used in his very own pro kitchen were now to be had in yours: the best grassfed beef, farmstead cheeses, cream line milk, of-this-second veggies, and on and on. Which is not even to mention the in-house butchery and charcuterie he and his crew have also become known for. 

But, enter CHS Field, the new Saints Stadium, and Russo rightly reexamined that piece of real estate, which opens right onto the heart of the beast — if a fly ball ever goes sailing, it's gonna go right through the threshold of Heartland. So he wondered: "Is a direct farm market the thing Saints fans are going to want most?" And he decided no. And he decided to remodel. 

Which is a very long way to say: All of these facts make me that much more flummoxed about the new Heartland Wine Bar concept (which has the best piece of real estate in relation to the Saints Stadium, practically handed down from on high), given Russo's usual savviness.

Why wine? Why high-end sandwiches, soups, and baked goods? Why not burgers and beer and their most excellent handmade sausages and an ice cream case for the kids, and, you know, beer? Why does this place make me feel like I'm in an office complex getting ready to have my taxes done? 

It could be argued that Russo is trying to offer a little something different than what's available inside the stadium, namely all of the above (burgers, beer, et. al), including Heartland's very own world-class house-crafted sausages and dogs, but I still don't know if $10 and $12 counter-service sandwiches (without sides) are the ticket. We got a jolt of sticker shock when three sandwiches and one bottle of water rang in at $37.67, plus $4 gratuity bringing things to $41.67. Such numbers are going to be a bitter pill to swallow for a family of three, especially if Mom and Dad want to enjoy a libation, easily bringing things to the $50+ mark. 

A roast beef sandwich was generously proportioned but lacked condiment balance

A roast beef sandwich was generously proportioned but lacked condiment balance

We know that good food costs good money, and we're willing to pay. With Heartland making their meat in-house, we feel good about eating beef and pork, and the bread was top truly top notch. But aside from that confidence, there wasn't much to the sandwiches. Proteins were generous but otherwise bland: The advertised blue cheese mousse and caramelized onions on a roast beef were all but undetectable, and a veggie hoagie was just a sad slice of grilled zucchini, raw onion, and a slice of tomato. There was just nothing to it, and they weren't even enlivened by a side of dressed greens or kettle chips. With St. Paul Meat Shop new in town crafting swoon-worthy sandwiches, as well as the upcoming Lowry Hill Meats with a similar in-house butchery program, Heartland will have to do better to compete if they expect these to be destination-worthy. 

And if it's a convenience for ballpark proximity he's shooting for, perhaps if he moved his burger bar menu (which he's currently serving in the Heartland restaurant bar) into the wine bar area and eliminated the sandwiches altogether, fans would cheer.

That menu: five different burgers, beef fat fries, a corn dog, pork ribs, ice creams. These are the things we what we want to be eating on game day, and every day. I like wine as much as the next guy (more — I like it more), but I just don't see a pack of dads with their kids sidling up for a nice glass of San Giovese before, or even after the game.

Instead: Surly, and lots of it, to go alongside salty parchment-paper cones of cheese curds and sweet cones of ice cream for the kiddos. 

The high-end deli was smart and elegant while it lasted, but it's a new day in Lowertown and we hope to see Heartland, Russo, and his generally great ideas evolve along with it.