Despite its origins as a relatively sober religious holiday, St. Patrick’s Day has grown into a secular celebration of camaraderie and drinking. Last week’s St. Patrick’s day dinner at Heartland in St. Paul split the difference — good booze and merry spirits met up with the monastically intense preparation of finely crafted food and boutique spirits.
The spirits part of the deal was managed by North Shore Distillery, a Chicago-area craft distillery that has expanded its sales turf into the Twin Cities area. Distillery co-founder Sonja Kassebaum (top left) presided over the evening along with Heartland chef and owner Lenny Russo (top right), and many of her distillery’s spirits (which include absinthe, two award-winning gins, aquavit, and vodka) were on display in the form of food-complementing cocktails. North Shore doesn’t make a lot of alcohol (Kassebaum said that one day of Grey Goose production is the equivalent of six years’ worth from her pot still.) Kassebaum added that North Shore, launched in 2004, was the first artisanal distiller established in the state of Illinois.
From a product demonstration perspective, the formidable bartending skills of Heartland’s Peder Schweigert (above) actually worked at cross purposes with North Shore — whatever native qualities the liquor may have possessed (and all the evidence points toward those qualities being quite positive indeed) were overshadowed or complicated by the inclusion of powerful flavoring agents such as horseradish infusions, Douglas fir eau de vie, or black walnut bitters. A clean shot of aquavit, a classic martini, or a gin and tonic would have been a good choice at some point in the evening to just let the native spirits speak their peace.
Reception: Smoked whitefish mousse, dill sour cream, and black pepper croustade (right) and heritage breed ham, fermented cabbage, heirloom apple chutney, and oatmeal croustade (left). The cocktail was a North Shore vodka infused at Heartland with horseradish, topped by a pair of skewered house pickled mushroom caps cradling smoked blue cheese. The thing was a depth charge, a bright fireball of flavor — the clean horseradish kick paired perfectly with the pickled mushroom and pungent cheese.
Fish: Potato chowder, steelhead trout, and watercress. Made with Cedar Summit cream, Dragsmith golden potatoes, and Wisconsin trout — the crispness of the fish’s exterior was offset really nicely by the smooth, creamy richness of the potato chowder. The accompanying cocktail, a gin Negroni with Campari and a house-blended sweet vermouth nicely contrasted with and cleared the palate of the rich, thick soup.
Poultry: Poussin (young chicken) from Wild Acres, with wild mushrooms, caramelized shallots, and celery broth — the broth was beautifully complemented by an accompanying gin and house-brewed celery soda cocktail.
Game & Meat: Rabbit, lamb bacon, root vegetables, rosemary, and mustard sauce. A fine, hearty winter dish for a chilly St. Patrick’s Day. Accompanied by a aquavit cocktail with house-fermented ginger beer and Clear Creek Distillery Eau de Vie of Douglas Fir (although tasty, the sum total of this cocktail was, oddly, something very close to a conventional dark-n-stormy.) Following this course, Sonja produced a surprise: some potcheen, or Irish white lightning (below, right). This high-proof unaged spirit smelled somewhat of Junior Mints and cookie dough and had a flavor that strongly resembled burnt campfire marshmallows.
Pastry: Sheep milk cheesecake, whiskey sauce, and candied heirloom apples — rich, but restrained — one of the most balanced and sophisticated desserts I’ve enjoyed in quite some time. The accompanying North Shore Absinthe Verte plus Jameson 12 year Irish Whiskey plus house-blended black walnut bitters cocktail was a big of a palate bomb — a fascinating perfect storm of deep flavors that most guests talked excitedly about, but few (coming as it did at the end of a relatively epic meal) finished.
Our writer and photographer received complementary tickets to this meal (valued at $80 a person.)
Learn more about this business in The Heavy Table’s Atlas of Ethical Eating and Drinking.