Pride of the Prairie

Putting the heart in Heartland: Chef Lenny Russo
Richard Fleischman
1806 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul

Vladimir Nabokov was one of the greatest English prose stylists of all time, but Russian was his native tongue. Lenny Russo is passionately dedicated to Midwestern cuisine, but Hoboken, New Jersey, was his native ground. And such are the triumphs of human will, which allows you to do what you want to do, and not what you were born to.

Lenny Russo has been in the Twin Cities for almost 20 years, cooking at high-profile places such as the long-gone Trigger's and helming the onetime Loring Café dream team, which included local chefs (and now local stars) Steven Brown (now at Rock Star), Greg Norton (Red Wing's Staghead) and Mel Goodin and Doug Flicker (Auriga). For the past four years, Russo was chef de cuisine at the Victorian megalopolis W.A. Frost, which might be the busiest restaurant in the state. He opened his own restaurant in October, and has called it Heartland, after the land where we live, and the foods that he serves. Russo features exclusively Midwestern ingredients, things like St. Croix Valley wild ginger; Indiana banon, a goat's-milk cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves; and, of course, Minnesotan everything. Bison. Sturgeon. Cornmeal. Produce I didn't even know Minnesota had, like darling little carrots with sweet green tops that taste as fresh and light as sprouts. I thought you could only get carrots like this in places like California, or, to a lesser extent, heaven.

Not so: "We have the best ingredients in the country," says Russo. "We live in America's breadbasket; we have fields and fields of grain, we have game, we have freshwater fish--is it so hard to have a restaurant where you don't buy everything from Spain and Italy and France? I've had rouget in France, you've had rouget in France, everybody's had rouget in France--it's good in France! It's not good here." Rouget--also called red mullet--is a Mediterranean fish. And while I can't say I've ever seen one on a menu here, I confess I have often wondered why there are never muskies, eelpouts, crappies, and such on menus either. I mean, I assure you, if crappies were French, they would be all the rage. Mon dieu! Les crappés!

Lenny Russo also thinks a lot about the French, as he learned everything he knows about cooking by working his way up through a succession of East Coast kitchens headed by French chefs. (That means that although Russo tries to source everything from the Midwest, he doesn't go crazy about it; he maintains whatever imports are critical to a true French kitchen, like pepper, cinnamon, and chocolate.) Fiercely French, too, is Russo's pride in making all of his "fonds"--his foundations of stock--from scratch. He then uses those fonds to develop the other building blocks of traditional French cooking, such as demi-glace and brown sauce. He does much of his own butchering, and prides himself on buying much of his meat on the hoof, or wing. If there is anyone else in America busy roasting the home-butchered bones of South Dakota geese so they might be turned into consommé, I would be very much surprised. And that is the real news and interest at Heartland.

I got to try the pan-seared goose breast with cippolini onions in a red wine pheasant demi-glace one night; the cross-the-grain slices were thin and brick-colored, and they tasted irony and fierce. I couldn't have been happier. Well, unless it had been a Lake of the Isles hissing, path-hog goose. Here's a modest proposal: How about we have a fall festival in which we shut down part of Lake Street, fill it with giant pits of flame, let every dog of Kenwood loose, and let them bring us lawn pig after lawn pig, which we'll roast up in vast bonfires of rage? Finally, an Uptown Art Fair for the rest of us.

Anyhoo, that goose breast was part of a prix-fixe menu one night. There are three of those menus every night: a vegetarian one, "from the farms and fields," for $25; a fish one, "from the rivers and lakes," for $30; and a meat and fowl one, "from the forest and prairie," for $35. Each is essentially three courses--an appetizer, entrée, and dessert--but more like five, as there is always a little cheese course, and each meal starts with an amuse-bouche, such as a bit of duck confit on a fried toast, served with a bit of arugula walnut pistou and a teensy little micro-green salad. There are a few à la carte items, too, in case you want to add a salad or plate of potatoes or you need a steak.

The vegetarian menu one night was awfully impressive: A salad of baby arugula and upland cress was tossed in a walnut-oil vinaigrette and topped with sweet dried cherries and toasted Ohio black walnuts. It was easily the best salad I've had this year. The walnuts were a revelation; like toast-and-tannin-edged macadamia nuts, they were so rich, buttery, and soft in the mouth that their texture was closer to that of, say, a young cheddar cheese than any walnut I've ever encountered. That salad was followed by plump ravioli made with North Dakota wheat and filled with a mixture of pumpkin, parsnip, and goat cheese. It was a remarkably original-tasting blend--flinty, earthy, sweet, piquant, and rich, all at once--set in a creamy roast garlic sauce and decorated with a few maple-roasted hedgehog mushrooms. The cheese was an Iowa blue. The dessert was a tiny, dense chocolate truffle cake surrounded on its plate by a black currant coulis, presented with a chocolate-chestnut truffle crowned by a pretty cross section of chestnut. There were things to quibble with in the meal--the mushrooms were overcooked, the truffle cake none too special--but dang. Already Heartland has moved into the first rank of local vegetarian date destinations, for vegetarians who eat dairy.  

I found the meats and fishes to be more erratically prepared. Some dishes are quite successful, such as a light and plump catfish dusted in wild rice flour and served in salmon broth with baby arugula; it was blowsy and airy in an appealing and unusual way, showcasing the creamier aspect of the whiskered fish. But some dishes were distinctly odd, such as breads and shortcakes that were served doughy and underdone, and the kitchen has a tendency to oversalt things. One night's rabbit had a lovely crisp skin, but the meat was oversalted, and the accompanying wheat berry risotto was one of a few things I encountered that were too salty to eat. I think this is a fairly frequent injury in the profession, though; just as certain racket pros get tennis elbow, certain kitchen lifers slowly have their salt sensitivity ground down. I feel reasonably certain that the kitchen can get this in hand, as Russo is such a perfectionist.

And the restaurant's other charms are legion, like the service, the reservations, the glassware, the wine list, the teapots, the coffee, the hospitality that just reverberates through the room. When I had friends call to make reservations, Russo called them back and chatted amiably about the coming meal. He seems to circle through the room constantly, chatting with nearly every guest. The wine list could hardly be better for a brand-new 40-seat neighborhood restaurant. Everything on the list that's priced under $50 (most are) is around $10 over retail, and everything above $50 tends to come in right around retail, or less. So, to consider just a high and low: A bottle of the charming Jacquesson et Fils nonvintage brut is on the wine list for $34, and it retails for around $25; the regal '92 Bollinger Grande Année is priced at $95, and I think you'd be hard pressed to find it for less--especially after James Bond made it his tipple of choice in that last flick. The list is strong in American reds and French whites and has enough budget options of interest to keep it a neighborhood destination. The flinty, anise-edged Shooting Star "Blue Franc" Lemberger, for example, is $18; the Henri Pelle Menetou-Salon is $22. One whole wall of the simple arts-and-crafts room that is Heartland is lined with Riedel stemware in all its shapes and sizes, and getting one of those pricey, wine-enhancing glasses is just another detail that makes you feel terribly special.

As does the exemplary service: I had nearly forgotten how relaxing and soothing the rituals of good service are, when you can just sink away and have all your needs met. Heartland made me remember. The forks come, the forks go. Waiters check back but don't hover. The wine in the glasses goes down, it goes up. You merely sit and chat and eat. It's a miracle! The coffee service is better than any place I can think of: A silvery tray with silvery sugar tongs and pots of cream and sugar: Coffee is individual estate and comes in your own oh-so-fresh press pot. Tea, from local treasure Tea Source, comes in clever pots especially designed to prevent oversteeping. It feels terrifically luxurious to contemplate all these little gadgets and indulgences at the end of the meal. And when the bill comes--maybe $75 for two with a bottle of wine, maybe $110?--it's hard not to notice that it costs about what, oh, say, Joe's Crab Shack does, but contains an infinitely richer experience, full of thoughtful local exploration. Like the Wisconsin sweet potato pie I forgot to mention, which had the weight of a winter vegetable, but the fragrance of a Christmas dream. An unusual direction for a Jersey boy, no? No, says Russo. "I'm so sick of hearing about how great everyone else is around the country, and how much we suck here." And thus the value of cross-cultural pollination: Sometime you really need a bit of Jersey spirit to make a Minnesota night.

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Heartland Restaurant

1806 St. Clair Ave.
St Paul, MN 55105-1936


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