Chef Lenny Russo of Heartland. Photo by Todd Buchanan.
I’d republished some unkind words that someone else had written. There was a new restaurant that was getting the piñata treatment from a few local critics (who were not entirely wrong). The site I was working for encouraged review round ups. It wasn’t something I was thrilled to do, but it was a slow news day and I didn’t disagree with the early assessment of this place. Moments after I hit the publish button, I got a message from Lenny Russo. I wasn’t even certain he knew exactly who I was, let alone remembered me well enough to pick up the phone and call. But, the man is never shy with an opinion. What our conversation boiled down to was, “You’re better than this, Joy.” It was humbling and invigorating. He was right. I mean, if I’m going to have a sour opinion about a dining experience, at least have the guts to claim it as my own. I’m not sure it’s ever felt so good to be taken to task: I don’t want to be wrong and I will never take what I get to do lightly.
Hospitality is a stage and we are lucky enough to attend some great performances. I’ve held a special place in my heart for Heartland and when the news broke yesterday that he had made the decision to close, I was honestly happy for him. That is, until a sadness flooded me that I’m no longer going to be able to visit the meat case early on a Saturday morning with my kids and have them point out what they want. The first time I prepared a whole fish, eyeballs and everything, it was because my just-above-a-toddler son had insisted he wanted to try one he saw there, smiling back at him. (And he totally ate the eyeballs—I’d never been so proud.)
There are plenty of places that now serve delicious, locally raised meals, but dining inside Heartland, in the original Mac/Groveland location and the stunning Lowertown spot has always been a singular experience. For now, I’m hoping to book one more date night with my husband to share a tasting menu and create a final memory there.
Our culinary scene will continue to change and grow, this is the end of one generation with the shuttering of La Belle Vie, Levain, Vincent, and now Heartland. As much as I look forward to the future, I can only hope that we continue to share the passion Lenny has shared with all of us. I hope he’s never too relaxed, too serene to miss an opportunity to hold us all to a higher standard. He’s one of the greats that makes the rest of us better by forcing hard conversations, engaging in passionate discussions and always championing greater meals for everyone.
Deli Case at Heartland
While everyone is clamoring for the dinner reservations that remain, I’ll be heading to the meat case and loading up on everything that my freezer can hold. Be certain to say hello to Dan Stepaniak, the incredibly talented butcher who has taken great care of us for years. (Update: As of Oct. 6 the meat counter is closed, but you can still experience Heartland’s full tasting menu.) heartlandrestaurant.com
Dog Flicker at Sandcastle
While we’re saying goodbye to things, it’s the end of the season for this little spot next to Lake Nokomis. The beer, hot dogs and view are just as pretty as ever. Pull on a sweatshirt and help them run out the ketchup and mustard before they shutter until the spring this weekend. sandcastlempls.com
Cubano at City House by Red River Kitchen
The season was short, but delicious, inside this building on the Mississippi River. These guys have only been open for a few weeks, but the talent behind the eatery, including the guys of Republic (and the other Red River Kitchen truck) and a menu created by J.D. Fratzke has made for a fantastic, nearly outdoors dining experience. The cubano sandwich they serve is my absolute favorite I’ve found anywhere in the city. They get the bread right. redriverkitchen.com
Enjoying a doughnut at Heartland. Photo by Joy Summers.