Heartland to Close on Dec. 31, 2016

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Editor’s note, 11am Oct. 4: Updated to include press release. Chef Lenny Russo’s Heartland Restaurant & Wine Bar, for years a local standard bearer for the ideals of farm-to-table dining, is closing this December. Rick Nelson’s write-up has the details, but much of the story seems to be a combination of rising real estate prices and falling diner interest in white tablecloth spots with all the whistles and bells. We’ve covered Heartland on many occasions, including the release of the restaurant’s cookbook, an exploration of the restaurant’s ambitious meat program, and a cartoon visit from Louie the Loon.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Press release from Heartland:

On October 24, 2016, Heartland will be celebrating fourteen years since we first opened our doors in a little, nondescript storefront on St. Clair Avenue in Saint Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood.  Over the years, Heartland grew from a tiny fifty seat restaurant occupying no more than 2,700 square feet to what it is today, a multi-faceted facility spread out across 26,000 square feet in the über hip Lowertown neighborhood of downtown Saint Paul, a neighborhood that we are proud to say we helped revitalize when we relocated there in 2010.

On December 31, 2016, Heartland will be serving its guests for the last time.  The real estate that is home to the restaurant has been sold to a private investor, and so we must say goodbye after many wonderful and rewarding years.

When we began our journey in 2002, we were at the forefront of the burgeoning local and sustainable food movement.  At that time, we were hopeful that our restaurant would help establish a standard for principles related to wholesome and healthful eating as well as encouraging support for small local family farms who practice humane and sustainable agriculture.  We were extremely successful in that endeavor, and we are pleased to say that today many, if not most people in our industry, have adopted those principles.  In that way, we feel that we have achieved our goal of bringing these issues into the light of day, and we are very proud of what we were able to accomplish over the last fourteen years.  After six James Beard Award nominations, the publication of a cookbook trumpeting our local and regional foods and travels that have allowed us to bring our message across the country as well as across the ocean to our friends in Europe, we are ready to take on new challenges and forge a fresh path toward a more healthy food system and planet.

We are making this announcement now in order to give our many long time patrons and friends a chance to visit us, as well as to allow those who are currently holding Heartland gift certificates ample opportunity to redeem them, before we turn out the lights on New Year’s Eve.

As we head into our busiest season of the year, Heartland has numerous private events already booked and reservations are becoming more and more difficult to obtain.  We encourage those who are interested in joining us to book their reservations as soon as possible, especially those who would like to join us on New Year’s Eve for our last dinner service, and we will do our best to accommodate all those seeking a place at the Heartland table.

Those who will be joining us should not expect to see any immediate changes to our menu format, but we will be gradually moving toward a fixed menu as opposed to our daily changing menu as we get closer to our last evening of operation.

We would be remiss if we did not take a moment to express how very thankful we are for all of the love and support we have received from the community, our farmers and suppliers, our peers and the media as well as the hard work and diligence of our staff over the last fourteen years.  We would not have been able to do any of this without the benefit of that kindness and generosity.

While it is not without some sadness that we must turn the page on Heartland, we are looking forward to the next chapter in our lives and to what new challenges and opportunities await us.

Warmest regards:
Lenny Russo, Heartland

Heirloom in Saint Paul

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Heirloom is billed as a “neighborhood” restaurant that specializes in “modern farmhouse cuisine.” As these terms suggest, it’s utterly inviting and the fare is rustic, centered on seasonal and local ingredients. But the food is also beautiful, subtly complex, and, at times, cutting-edge without being the least bit pretentious. Chef Wyatt Evans (formerly of WA Frost) has our attention.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

The most unassuming dishes on the dinner menu (brunch is served on Sundays) produced the most high-fives and “hot damns.” The pedestrianly named “meat pie” ($14) turns out to be an adorable acorn-shaped cracker crust filled with a luscious, soul-warming mixture of shredded chicken and pork, cinnamon, and a layer of green tomato chutney. Accompanied by sharp English mustard, raisins, and pickled green tomatoes, the delectable pie skillfully balances textures and flavors. Hot damn, indeed.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Moving from England to Ireland, Evans’ black pudding ($11) is another stunner. Made of pork shoulder, pig’s blood and organ meat (heart and liver), and steel-cut oats (for binding), the “pudding” is really a refined, funky, and delicious meatloaf. A light puree of celery root and thin slices of tart, slightly sweet pickled apples cut the dish’s richness while brightening it. Winner winner, fancy meatloaf dinner.

A Pig in a Fur Coat in Madison, WI

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

First take Tilia, Butcher & The Boar, and Corner Table, and intersplice their DNA with liberal abandon. Then put the resulting creation on Madison, WI’s increasingly hip East Side. The result would look a lot like the newly opened “pasture-to-plate” bistro A Pig in a Fur Coat, named for a Kazakh dish of smoked fish that struck the owner as amusing. Crowded cheek-to-jowl on a recent Thursday night, this pig has buzz on its side: Google employees recently reserved it for a private beer-and-food dinner.

Much like Tilia, the restaurant doesn’t take reservations and the small space manages to feel chic, busy, and comfortable. Long communal tables in the center of the restaurant facilitate envious looks at newly arrived dishes, and thoughtful inquiries, too: A neighbor at our table during a recent visit asked if we’d ever traveled and eaten in Italy (one of us had) before then soliciting our comment on the porchetta.

Southern Wisconsin’s brewing scene is blowing up at a rate that keeps pace with the Twin Cities boom, and there’s therefore a rich array of Madison, Milwaukee, and greater Wisconsin beers to choose from on the Pig’s menu. We drank a Madtown Nutbrown ale (by Ale Asylum of Madison, $4.25) and found it light, gently malty, and refreshing without lacking conviction. The restaurant’s wine list is brief but well suited to its food, leaning heavily on Italian and South American varieties with bright, full flavors.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Arancini ($7) were a strong opening salvo, this trio of fried risotto balls providing an indulgent flavor / texture explosion. Each delicately crispy fried ball of creamy rice was accented internally by a spicy dab of Underground Food Collective ‘nduja and externally by a basil-Parmesan sauce that provided a felicitous kiss of salt, herb, and dairy. (According to the restaurant owner Bonnie Arent, the ‘nduja may be subbed out in future versions of the arancini, so enjoy them while you can.)

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

House-made burrata (fresh mozzarella with a cream and mozzarella core, $11) was rich and delicate, the intoxicating cloud of dairy brightly counterpointed by an accompaniment of good olive oil and heirloom and tiny currant tomatoes. The only (minor) misstep among the starters was lovely-looking lamb carpaccio with egg yolk ($14) marred by long strips of lamb that, while flavorful, were bubble-gum chewy.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Our table of four, already well-fed by the wave of rich appetizers, took our waiter’s advice and split a single porchetta as a main ($22). This was a move of unimaginable brilliance, and not just from a calorie-management perspective — the porchetta combined an ethereal tenderness with a gentle, almost ghostly kiss of fennel flavor that lingered long after the pork had been swallowed. That the dish floated on a cloud of truffled mashed potatoes was merely an afterthought, albeit a damned sweet one.

Mona Restaurant & Bar in Downtown Minneapolis

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

There’s an awful lot to like about Mona, a newly opened restaurant that brings a seasonal / local ethos into downtown Minneapolis, where (sometimes emptily) cosmopolitan steakhouses and fusion joints tend to rule the roost. Chef Lisa Hanson boasts a New York City fine dining pedigree honed most recently at Scott Pampuch’s Corner Table, and she has used that polish and knowledge to give Mona an atmosphere and menu that can rival any in the metro area for its energy.

“Ambition” may be the word that defines Mona, a restaurant that’s bursting at the seams with vivacity and ideas. The menu’s concept (two or three courses of small plates plus a dessert) diffuses the risk to diners, and lets new visitors travel far and wide; such a journey is likely to have both ups and downs, and is guaranteed to provoke conversation.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

At its weakest, Mona’s dishes are soft-spoken, respectful, shy, and retiring — dishes such as its white bean salad ($5), fregola (couscous-esque bits of toasted pasta, above, $5), and arugula salad ($5) all cried out for acid, or heat, and / or depth of spice to make them sing out to their true potential. Visits to other in-the-mix restaurants like Heartland and Bar La Grassa regularly demonstrate that vegetables don’t have to be wallflowers — they can and should kick out the flavor jams with the best of the bacons.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

While Mona’s meatier dishes tended to provide more passion and a perceptible flavor kick, an undersized elk rib eye ($13) needed to offer a Big Bang of flavor to compensate for its price. Instead, it offered only a moderate squeak, even when aided by the accompanying Hollandaise sauce.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

A lunchtime order of lentil stew ($7 or $11 for a larger portion) had more conviction, the funky depth of the lentils and kale supporting tender and meaty impact of braised pork shoulder and the richness of a fried egg.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Scottish salmon was all over the lunch menu (as a special and an optional $5 add-on to salads and the like) and it was downright excellent, boasting clean, rich flavor and a firm texture. Like the optional add-on bacon ($1), it was a welcome utility player.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Echoes of the Corner Table resonated in Mona’s extensive local sourcing and a host of offal and other offbeat meat-focused dishes, including marrow on toast ($7, above), pork belly ($7), head cheese and pickles ($6), and chicken liver pate ($6). Across the board, these dishes clocked in at somewhere between “strong” and “really excellent.” The marrow on raisin toast with apple butter in particular offered a rustic-meets-wordly flavor impact and presentation that was well worth writing home about, wherever home might happen to be.

Thomas Boemer and Nick Rancone of Corner Table

Crystal Liepa / Heavy Table

Vincent may be the only local restaurant more thoroughly intertwined with its founding personality than Corner Table was with Chef Scott Pampuch. Pampuch drove the restaurant’s relentlessly seasonal and local menu, enforced its standards, and worked the room like a champ — dine there once and you knew him, dine there twice and he was an old friend who could hook you up with foraged mushrooms.

When Pampuch departed last summer for fame and fortune (Dara’s recent profile on him is a fine recap of his current projects), Corner Table’s demise or radical transformation seemed to be a foregone conclusion. Previously loyal diners ducked the place. “It will still take time to recover from the void that Scott left on the name of this restaurant,” says 29-year-old owner Nick Rancone (above, left), who purchased the place with his wife Chenny. “We knew it would take time, and the hardest thing about that is sticking to your guns, and right now we don’t get to share what’s going on here with as many people as we’d like on a weekly basis.”

But stick to his guns he has. Backing him up from the kitchen — or leading the charge, if you prefer — is 32-year-old Chef Thomas Boemer (above, right), a rambler with Minnesota roots, a lover of Low Country cuisine with a Southern upbringing, and a survivor of a Las Vegas trial-by-fire under the tutelage of renowned Chef Alain Ducasse.

Crystal Liepa / Heavy Table

The food is first-rate, the pork belly (above) still the best in the Cities, the plates edited and balanced with wit and grace but without pomp or fussiness. A recent meal at Corner Table (at the suggestion of the Lucid Brewing guys) was persuasive enough that we stopped by Corner Table yesterday to chat with Rancone and Boemer.

HEAVY TABLE: What was the restaurant under Scott [Pampuch], and what is it now… or what is it becoming, at least?

NICK RANCONE: It was always a very collaborative restaurant. I think Scott put a team together better than a lot of people do in town — he was very adept at procuring and utilizing talented people. I think that’s a very admirable trait for someone to have, to have that eye for talent.

It was really on the front end of farm-to-table. He had always done it on a radical edge of the thing, and he was unrelenting in his standard for that.

Crystal Liepa / Heavy Table

The restaurant and the menu was always related to that hyper seasonality and that locality thing. To take that and keep that mentality relevant — there was a tradition, a legacy almost, that he put forth. The menu would change a lot and he explored a lot… to continue on with that mindset is important. That’s the legacy we wanted to perpetuate.

THOMAS BOEMER: Scott laid down the groundwork for what Corner Table is, over the last seven years, and we want to take it that next step. We want to refine it… to take that feeling, that service, that food to the next step. The local aspect is part of that. He was a huge part in this town in showing people what is right in our backyard.

The next step is me believing that the awareness is there is to dial it in and focus. That’s going back to the purveyors and getting the very best of what they have through developing the relationship and having very high standards.

I see us as a strong, European-influenced, technique-rich approach to classic Americana. That’s Low Country, that’s Minnesota cuisine… I’ve been all over the United States and you can never get more American than a piece of pork belly. It’s so immediately identifiable. You see it and you imagine the flavors.

HT: But where do you guys diverge from Scott’s method of doing things?

Crystal Liepa / Heavy Table

TB: Nick’s presence is a huge factor in terms of what’s different. I’m in the back, and I get to stay there. Now, I love to talk to people, we have people come in the kitchen and we get to connect, and we have a fun bar crowd: We had someone come in recently at 5 o’clock and leave at 2am, which is just crazy.

But I don’t have to come out here … Scott was this personality, and this presence, but with Nick here, I don’t have to fill that void, and my focus is, from start to end, being with every plate of food that passes through here. And that’s a plus. With Nick’s presence here, Chenny’s presence here, that’s two people focusing on that integral part of people’s experience.

And I think Nick is poised to be one of the new wine gurus here in town — we change the menu and the wine menu constantly. We reprint the menu two, sometimes three times a week and he’s keeping up with the wine menu. If you order a dish and you want the perfect glass of wine to go with it, he will tell you what that is and why it’s so wonderful.

HT: The concept of cooking farm-to-table, which includes working with animals that you have a somewhat personal relationship with, is key to what you’re doing. Is it old hat? Has everybody caught on to it by now?

NR: It’s weird to us because we’re so immersed in it that we sometimes lose sight of it. Last week we were carrying a pig in — a 180-pound hog — which is a weird, awkward thing to carry… right in the front door in the middle of the day, and these two older ladies were walking down the sidewalk and they were just like: “That’s a real pig!”

I was getting crushed by this thing. I’m not a butcher, that’s not my body type. But I’m like: “Where do you think the pork chops come from?”

The Twisted Fork Grille in St. Paul

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Editor’s Note: Twisted Fork Grille is now closed.

The newly opened Twisted Fork Grille is billed in its press materials as focused on “farm-to-table freshness.” Yet it’s interesting to note that it’s owned by some of the same people who run the casual dining chain Green Mill*, which is primarily focused on “thin n crispy pizzas.” (The Twisted Fork is, in fact, physically carved out of the Green Mill on Grand Ave. and Hamline in St. Paul.)

Nowhere in the restaurant’s initial, highly detailed press release is this mentioned. The attached Twisted Fork Grille fact sheets skip over this, too, dwelling instead on the biographies of chefs Keven Kvalsten (former co-owner of The Green Room, chef de cuisine at Corner Table) and Stephen Trojahn (former executive chef at Graves 601).

This is profoundly irritating. When you’re trying to figure out what a given establishment is all about, there are few things as essential as understanding who stands to make money. If the Twisted Fork is — as it seems to be — an attempt on the part of Green Mill’s owners to dabble in farm-to-table and possibly launch a major commercial initiative in that direction, mazel tov. A lot of good things can come out of corporate experimentation, and the fact that this joint has experienced owners who do casual dining throughout the Midwest isn’t something to be ashamed of.

It is, however, something to disclose and talk about, particularly somewhere as crunchy granola and generally transparent as the Upper Midwestern farm-to-table scene. When you don’t, it looks like you’re trying to hide something, and when it looks like you’re trying to hide something, you make people suspect your good intentions.

Further compounding suspicion: the menu.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

If you walked into the Twisted Fork, you wouldn’t know that it was meant to be a locally focused farm-to-table restaurant. The dinner menu makes only a few mentions of local food (“North Dakota Angus beef,” “Nueske’s bacon,” “Minnesota pork chop”) and, with the exception of Nueske’s, doesn’t bother mentioning where anything specifically comes from**.

In fact, if you count up sourcing referencing on the menu, you have six local dishes or ingredients (counting the Minnesota chopped salad) and six distinctly not local (pomegranate, ahi tuni — mentioned twice, Avery Brown Ale sauce, PEI mussels, and Atlantic salmon).

Avery? Seriously? How hard would it be to do a Summit-, Surly- or Lift Bridge-based sauce?

At any rate, the restaurant’s website credibly cites copious local sourcing — Ames Farm, Faribault Dairy, Venison America, and many others. This is super stuff, and proof that Twisted Fork isn’t a malicious front. But why not celebrate it on the menu? Why not actually do farm-to-table whole hog? That’s what’s perplexing: The marketing and organization of the restaurant is a toe dipped timidly into the water of local sourcing, when the whole point of experimentation is to jump in, head first. Go on, freak out the squares! Let ’em riot!

The idea of compromise or wavering commitment is a good one to dwell on when talking about the food. Collectively speaking, it’s not great. It’s also not bad. Overall, first and foremost, it’s profoundly safe.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

A bison meatloaf ($13) was dry and oversalted, but had a pleasant smoky / mushroomy umami — it was halfway home, a valiant attempt. A chili spiced pork chop ($13, two photos up) was outclassed by its sides, a pleasant toasted barley risotto and sweetly gingered carrot slices. By comparison, the pork chop — while adequately moist — was bland and lacked spice or heat.

At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe in Duluth, MN

Jena Modin / Heavy Table

The sign on the building says “Taran’s Market Place,” the menus say “At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe,” but to the regulars it is known as the most locally sourced meal you can get in town. General Manager Andrew Mattila says: “When people ask ‘What does your restaurant stand for?’ we say we stand for sustainability.”

Seven years ago, Carla Blumberg and Barb Neubert reopened Taran’s Market Place with the new names “At Sara’s Table” and “Chester Creek Cafe” with the goal of creating a farm-to-table restaurant that was sustainable. “Carla has always been interested in the farmer aspect and the sustainable aspect, getting the good food to the people,” says Mattila. Sourcing 80 percent of food locally in the summer and 45 percent in the winter, a percentage based on the amount of product used in the kitchen, their focus on local foods and sustainability has made Chester Creek Cafe become for Duluth what Common Roots Cafe is for Minneapolis.

Bay Produce, Larry Schultz, Thousand Hills Cattle Company, Kadejan, Flying Snakes, and Stickney Hill Dairy Farms are among the farms that the restaurant uses. “It grows over time,” says Mattila. “After you’ve met one farmer, they introduce you to someone else.” Mattila has seen the restaurant add more farmers to their menu each year, and this year, “the Duluth Community Garden Club is going to start selling us green onions.” The restaurant’s staff has also started growing their own herbs, sprouts, Swiss chard, and other vegetables on site.

The duck ($17), a recent menu item, is Mallard sourced from Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes. Whole ducks are purchased; the breasts are used for the dinner entree and the carcass for making duck stock. Beet marmalade accompanies the duck with beets, from Flying Snakes Farm at Chantrelle Woods Preserve in Bayfield, WI, alongside a mint panzanella salad made with ciabatta from Franklin Street Bakery in Minneapolis.

Jena Modin / Heavy Table

Every six to eight weeks the menu changes. AM Chef Peter Ravinski, PM Chef Bruce Wallis, owners, and managers sit down for a brainstorming session to create new menus. A theme is selected and the menu is based on flavors and dishes that reflect the theme and what is available locally. “Sometimes you have to go with a flavor profile and see what you can find here. We don’t want to import Asian food here; we would rather pick their flavor and try to find something to match it locally,” says Mattila.

At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe has led the community not only in using local foods but also in composting; they are a drop off center for the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District. Anyone in the community can pick up biodegradable plastic bags for compost and drop them off at the restaurant. “Very little garbage leaves the restaurant,” says Mattila. Along with recycling and composting food waste, “we don’t use a lot of oil, but our used peanut oil for frying goes to a guy locally who uses it to make bio-diesel.”

The only meat that is not sourced locally is the Alaskan salmon from Simple Gifts Syrup and Salmon. The salmon is line-caught by Duluth local Dave Rogotzke. “The salmon is flash frozen and stored in a warehouse in Washington,” explains Mattila. “Sure, we feel bad about shipping it half way across the country, but we are also trying to support this local business.” The salmon ($20) is served with a miso glaze, black barley pilaf, and house-grown sprouts. The salmon is moist with a light crust from the miso glaze that is both sweet and savory.

Jena Modin / Heavy Table

“Other places in town are trying the best they can [to purchase local and organic], but we feel we are a bit ahead, we are trying to make it our one thing,” says Mattila. As the restaurant continues to work with farms and build community support, their goal of being 100 percent local and organic is within sight. Using more local cheese, finding quality local wines, and using organic butter are part of the vision for the future. Mattila says, “[Local] is like a buzz word now; everybody is saying local is the new thing for this year. And we look at it and say, ‘This year?'”

At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe
Locally sourced food restaurant in Duluth

1902 E 8th St
Duluth, MN 55812
Carla Blumberg and Barb Neubert

Mon-Sat 7am-9pm
Sun 7:30am-4pm
Beer + Wine

Justin Grecco of Grecco’s on the Saint Croix

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

This feature article is sponsored by Grecco’s on the Saint Croix.

In St. Croix Falls, WI, an hour’s drive from Minneapolis, there lives an improbable chef who is accomplishing some improbable things. On the menu of Chef Justin Grecco’s little riverside restaurant are dishes such as fennel seasoned walleye with rainbow Swiss chard and wild rice pilaf with roasted tomato butter sauce; garam masala-crusted quail breasts, lentil, bacon and fava bean ragout, sauteed spinach, and mango lime puree; and blackened venison NY strip steak, potato puree, broiled blue cheese, and black cherry sauce with farmers’ vegetables.

The blunt and irrepressible Grecco is not a guy who does things simply, easily or quietly. His restaurant mixes a no holds barred selection of local produce, meat, and game with world travelers such as kangaroo and lobster, and appeals to a restless, cosmopolitan palate.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

It’s therefore a little surprising to know that twelve years ago, Grecco wasn’t a chef. “I couldn’t boil water,” he says. A trip to Italy — and a visit to one particular restaurant in Florence — changed things radically.

“I’m having dinner, and this gal who’s with me — well, I’d started breaking down, crying,” he recalls. “And she said: ‘Oh, what’s wrong with you? You’ve had too much wine!’ And I said: ‘Yeah, I’ve had too much wine, but I know what I want to do. I’ve found my calling.’ It’s this completely emotional, crazy thing. All of a sudden, something clicked.”

Grecco returned to the states, quit his job and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College in Minneapolis, where he discovered that his impulsive leap toward a career in cooking had a great deal of substance behind it.

“I got Cs and Ds and high school — [at LCB] I got a 4.0,” he says. “And I was like… ‘Uh-oh, I figured it out.’ It just completely engulfed my world. I progressed really fast and graduated at the top of my class.”

Grecco’s passion for cooking has led him from restaurant to restaurant in search of the opportunity to break out and do his own thing; he’s worked as a sous chef for OddFellow’s, an intern at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco, the executive chef at Mississippi Dunes, and also at the Afton House Inn, Bellanotte, McCormick & Schmick’s, and Visos.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

As of October 2008, he’s the chef/owner of Grecco’s on the Saint Croix in St. Croix Falls, WI, a town that’s nestled amid the lakes, national parks, and dramatic river gorges that give the area its scenic character.

Grecco’s ambition and imagination have breathed life into a restaurant concept unique to the area, and arguably the region as a whole.

The Tale of a Lowline Angus

Terrific piece in MinnPost today tracing the field-to-plate progression of a grass-fed cow at Prairie Horizon Farm. Heavy Table’s own field-to-plate cow story is being edited and comes out Friday, stay tuned.