WHILE PERUSING HEARTLAND RESTAURANT’S WEBSITE RECENTLY, I discovered that Lenny Russo, the meticulous, dedicated, and inspired owner/chef, posts the custom menus he composes for groups. Clicking on “The Murray McAllister Birthday Celebration,” I reviewed the guest of honor’s special meal: gingered Hill Top Farm golden carrot-cider soup…Reny Picot Wisconsin Camembert…cherry-walnut custard tart. I grew jealous. Next year, I thought. To: Rachel. From: Rachel. Happy Birthday.
With its inventive contemporary Midwestern fare and luxe Arts and Crafts décor, Heartland’s only drawback is that you—being Minnesotan—might not feel like you deserve to be there unless it’s a special occasion. The anxiety isn’t eased by a glance around the dining room, which can make you think that if you don’t have a PhD, a wine cellar, and a Mac-Groveland mortgage, you haven’t quite earned a spot at the table.
In August, Russo expanded the west side of the restaurant to include a wine bar, a narrow slip of a place with 30 seats that he’d intended for patrons waiting for tables. But with its short menu of smaller-portioned and more affordable dishes (most of the soups, salads, cheeses, charcuterie, and plats du jour overlap with those in the main dining room), the wine bar itself has become a destination. It still feels like Heartland, sans the self-conscious caveat. (This is due, in part, to manager Christa Robinson, who has a gift for putting people at ease with her friendly, knowledgeable approach.)
While the wine bar is packed on weekends, it tends to be slowest on Monday nights when the restaurant is closed—visit then if you want to feel like you have a personal chef. At a recent early-evening meal, we started off with the place to ourselves. Robinson recommended a couple of affordable Spanish reds, then brought an amuse bouche of pheasant terrine and pickled kohlrabi—a tiny but representative sample of Russo’s cooking style, which pairs local ingredients in ways that make subtle flavors spark.
A purée of golden potatoes and celery root had a similar sensibility, matched with a generous spoonful of hazelnut pesto that added a delicious, buttery crunch. Heartland’s salads tend to be top-notch, but this time, the mâche with fennel, blue cheese, and blueberries was a tad underdressed. The wine bar menu devotes about half its space to cheeses and charcuterie: we tried a rosebud-shaped twirl of prosciutto atop pinto beans (perfectly cooked, as if the kitchen staff had timed the pot with an atomic clock), doused in a tangy-sweet vinaigrette with caramelized shallots and roasted tomatoes.
Heartland’s lavish menu descriptions could double as poetry—or science. The “chocolate–black currant–truffle gâteau with whipped crème fraîche, a cardamom-clove wafer, green peppercorn–apple cider reduction, and a ginger-oatmeal Florentine cookie” was an amazing (and exacting) composition: at its heart, silky dark chocolate was enhanced by the peppered cider’s tart, sweet bite. Request that for your birthday cake, and you’ll start your next year wiser.