At first glance, you don’t notice anything very revolutionary about the new incarnation of Heartland in St. Paul. It looks like just another fancy new restaurant with its mix of contemporary eco-chic accents (reclaimed barn-wood panels that resemble sharkskin) and turn-of-the-century architecture (the red-brick building, just north of the historic St. Paul Farmers’ Market space, was built largely as a warehouse in 1902). And you certainly can enjoy the restaurant simply as a fancy new restaurant full of hedonistic pleasures (berry-red smoked lamb chops so sweet and gamy, for instance, they’ll leave you limp and seduced). But if you look more closely, you’ll see that the new Heartland is more than a fancy, smoothly functioning restaurant and more than a local-foods palace, as the former Heartland was. It’s local food taken up an order of complexity, ambition, and realization. It’s Europe. Or rather, it’s Minnesota with the culinary depth and logic of a European cuisine. ¶ Consider the smoked wild-boar ribs. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a better dish. The bones were tiny, mere chopsticks in the center of rosy-pink, black-char-flecked strips. Slip these tiny, pencil-thin bones away from the boar meat, and at first, sweet, rich bits of meat and crisp bits of crunchy exterior fat delight you in the way bacon does—with the knee-weakening joy of crisp salted fat. But then closer in to the bone is another layer of fat, something rare and peculiar—a sweet, mineral, herbal, even musical fat!— something that your senses have no reference point for, and so it plunges you into a caveman-like bliss: Yes, this is worth coming down from the trees and inventing tools for. Wild boar—who knew?
If you merely approach them conventionally, these smoked wild-boar ribs are extravagantly accomplished: exquisitely cooked, the fat white and tender, the meat crisp and chewy. Their sides are beyond reproach: The polenta—made from a blend of fine- and rough-ground local corn—gives the plate the buttercup edge of sweet corn but also the homey resonance of Sunday supper. The further accompaniment of charred hot Hungarian bell peppers scours and piques the palate, resetting it for another blitz of wild meat and fat. Yum.
Yet, these wild boar ribs are also extravagantly accomplished in complicated, intellectual-agricultural ways. For instance, these ribs come from a southern Minnesota producer raising full-blooded Russian wild boars, the long-haired, live-outside-in-winter type. But Heartland’s headcheese is made from another breed of heirloom hog, wild boars crossed with Asian Meishan pigs (which have crinkly faces, like sharpei dogs) to recreate a local version of a Swabian Hall, a long-lost favorite pig of a 19th-century southern German emperor. (If you want to eat head cheese like a German king, this may be the only restaurant in the country for you.) Meanwhile, Russo uses a third heirloom hog, Mangalitsa, for his prosciutto. In short, Russo uses different pigs and boars the way an artist might fill up a palate with a half-dozen shades of blue to paint the ocean. That’s fundamentally different from any other restaurant. It’s less about changing the ingredients of the land than it is about curating them, with getting elbow- and bank-account-deep in the way that the land does taste, in all its many dimensions both man-made (animal breeds and farming) and nature-given (weather, soil, and wild plants). All of which renders Heartland something unique in America, a restaurant as inextricable to its place as a restaurant serving foraged greens and goat’s milk cheese on a mountaintop in Serbia, say, or a restaurant serving pizzas grilled over grapevine trimmings topped with garden tomatoes in Tuscany.
Of course, anyone familiar with the restaurant scene in Minnesota is familiar with chef Lenny Russo. He grew up in Hoboken, above a store in which the Italian owners made their own cheese. His family purchased chickens only from a great-uncle who sold live chickens and rabbits. He came to Minnesota in 1985 for a girl and set about trying to recreate what he grew up with in New Jersey: food that met his personal standards, in terms of both morality and quality. It took a while.
He started by driving Minnesota’s back roads and pulling in to farm stands to talk to whomever he could find. Russo eventually got a job cooking at the Minnesota Horse and Hunt Club and began exploring the 750-acre property for wild plums, black raspberries, and other forageable plants. By the time Russo had had his first high-profile fine-dining restaurant positions, at places such as Faegre’s, he was known as a local-eating pioneer, alongside chefs like Lucia Watson.
But while Watson followed her muse to a cuisine of elegant simplicity, Russo grew more baroque, tasting every animal commonly or uncommonly eaten around here—from mustard green sprouts to wild crabapples to South Dakota goose to black bear. He developed a highly complex cuisine based on unique local ingredients: Magret duck breasts from ducks raised for foie gras in Caledonia, Minnesota, make the best duck prosciutto while ducks from Pequot Lakes make the best duck breasts for pan-searing. If the idea of such specificity in cooking seems peculiar, you’re obviously not a native of France, where the idea that a “poulet de Bresse,” that is, a certain sort of chicken raised in a certain area near Lyons, is better than any other is seen as obvious and normal. (Try Heartland’s duck prosciutto—it’s wine-dark, silky and fine, and has a thunderous rich resonance.)
If all goes well, that duck prosciutto will soon be available next door to Russo’s restaurant, in a sort of curated farmers’ market under the name Heartland Farm Direct Market. As of this writing, it’s not yet open. When it does debut, it will sell the same products of farmer and forager that Russo has built his career around, like special Russo-driven high-fat butter from local Hope Creamery, wild-boar chops, and chanterelle mushrooms. It will also sell things like sausage, rillettes, stock, demi-glace, and court bouillon—things that are the next step up from the farm, the unglamorous but utterly necessary water-plus-heat-and-discarded-bits that European cuisine rests on. The plan is that Russo will buy from his farmers, but also from the farmers who come to the farmers’ market at his door. He will showcase ingredients in the market, and then, if say, the tomatoes start to get soft, whisk them into the restaurant to be made into chutney. It will be something very like a zero-waste, farm-to-table showcase of what the Upper Midwest is capable of.
That’s a heck of a lot more than a fancy new restaurant.
However, Heartland is also a very appealing fancy restaurant. With its postmodern frieze of barn wood, the main dining room is elegant, the tables so widely spaced that the room feels luxurious. The restaurant has maintained its favorite feature: the well-priced multi-course meals, like a recent $30 three-course vegetarian meal of a baby-tomato panzanella salad with cucumbers, sunflower seeds, and sprouts in a shallot vinaigrette; barley risotto with shell peas and pea tips, crimini mushrooms, and squash blossoms; and a summer fruit Linzer torte with blackberry curd, granola, and herb-scented crème anglaise.
Still, I vastly prefer the lounge to the main space because that’s where you find the oddball dishes. (The lounge is the only place to find those wild-boar ribs.) Also, from the lounge you can see the open kitchen. And if you watch the kitchen long enough, Russo himself, with his black curls and soft eyes, may wander out. If you offer congratulations on his vision coming to fruition, he’ll tell you, “Thanks, but I’m not really a visionary. I’m not doing anything new, just something very old.” And you can have a local microbrew and eat the heirloom products of deeply thoughtful farmers and consider that doing something very old in a place where it’s never been done is actually nothing short of revolutionary.
Heartland is a museum, experimental lab, and art gallery of food from the northern Midwest. It’s like nowhere else on earth, due to Chef Lenny Russo’s deep connection to both local farms and wild foods.
Ideal Meal: Sit in the bar and graze the endlessly changing rare local meats, like wild boar, or unusual produce, such as wild plums. Hours: Tuesday–Sunday 5 p.m.–9:30 p.m. Prices: About $35-$40 for a multicourse meal. Address: Heartland Restaurant, 289 E. Fifth St., St. Paul, heartlandrestaurant.com
THE PERFECT DRINK
Even the liquor at Heartland is local: This Negroni is made with North Shore #11 gin, produced in Lake Bluff, Ilinois, and is finished with herb-infused vermouth that Heartland makes in-house. (Heartland doesn’t take local to religious absolutism, however: The Campari in the drink is the real deal, from Italy, as is the citrus.) Heartland also pours Death’s Door gin and vodka made right in Door County, Wisconsin.