Happy Birthday at Heartland Restaurant

The evening started with a parking space right in front of the restaurant.  I mean right in front.  We just walked up the steps and into the restaurant.  When does that happen in St. Paul?

We were seated at our table for two right outside the kitchen.  Yes, the kitchen of my dreams.

I wonder if that pot rack would fit in my kitchen?  Probably not.  I’m not sure one of those pots would fit in my kitchen!

There was a little trepidation I’ll admit.  Was there going to be something on the menu we really didn’t want to eat?  Life is short.  Try everything once!

On the table was our personalized menu for the evening!  Dave and I immediately started reading to see if there was anything we weren’t sure about! Smoked trout?  Yum!  No worries with the first course! Suckling pig.  Never had that before.  Should taste like pork, right?  We just won’t focus on the fact that it’s a baby pig. Pan Roasted Rabbit.  It’ll taste like chicken right?  I’ve had rabbit before but in a stew. It’ll be fine! Cheese with root vegetable chutney, honey and baguette?  Yum again! And finally a Chocolate Pots de Crème?  Who wouldn’t like that!

Our waiter for the evening, Phillipe, brought us water and dinner rolls.  The rolls were both sourdough, one a whole grain sourdough with a delightful mix of seeds on the top, including a toasted fennel which was delicious with the tang of the sourdough and the other a molasses sourdough which was tangy and sweet at the same time.  You could definitely taste the molasses in the roll.  These were hearty rolls, neither Dave nor I finished a whole one and four were brought to the table!

With the rolls we were given a delightful Austrian Pinot Noir.  Dave likes pinots that taste like the dirt they were grown in.  I prefer a pinot that tastes a bit more like the fruit.  We decided this was one we both liked.  Just a touch of earth with enough fruit for me.  We both emptied those glasses!

The first course was smoked steelhead trout with mache, blue corn blinis and a harissa crème fraiche.  Delicious.  The smoked trout was perfect, just the right amount of smoke and perfect texture.  Dave and I both really enjoyed the mache.  If you don’t know what it is (we didn’t, I consulted the Google!) it’s a salad green also known as “lamb’s lettuce.” It had an almost nutty flavor, not bitter at all.  The blinis were also delicious and the sweet blue corn combined with the smoky trout was a perfect combination. Philippe warned us that there was harissa in the crème fraiche and that it was spicy.  Well, maybe by Minnesotan’s taste.

This course was paired with a Hopler Pinot Noir from Austria.  Of the five glasses of wine we were given during the evening, this is the one Dave and I both finished!  Dave likes earthy pinot noirs, ones that taste like the dirt in which they were grown. I prefer a bit fruitier than that.  We both agreed this one was a good balance of both.

Our second course was suckling pig.  Baby pig. While we were quite sure that it would just taste like pork neither Dave nor I was thrilled about baby pig.  We had just about gotten ourselves over that thought when Chef Russo came over and told us how cute the little pigs were when they came in that morning!  We let him know that was more information than we really wanted!  The pork (we’re just going to call it pork now) was cooked in the sous-vide method until it fell apart then Chef Russo pressed it and cut it into these adorable cubes.  It was very tasty. But what made this dish was the apple cider reduction. OH.MY.GOD was this delicious.  It was thick and had a tangy apple flavor that made the dish.  The sides were mustard greens and a pickled cipollini onion.  Dave said the last time he had eaten mustard greens was when he was in the Army, many years ago, stationed in the south.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had them before.  They were ok on their own, kind of like spinach, but coated in the apple cider reduction, well they made a nice little mop for my plate!

The pork was served with a Sori Paitin Dolcetto d’Alba from the Piedmont area of Italy. This was a bit heavier wine than the pinot noir.  We both liked this one as well and it paired nicely with the pork.

Our next course was pan roasted rabbit.  Dave was a little nervous at this one, he’s never had rabbit before.  I’ve had rabbit at least once before, in a stew at Zazu during one of our trips to the California wine country.  It was OK.  It was gamey so I didn’t love it, but it was OK.  So that is what I was expecting here.  I was happily surprised!  Chef Russo’s presentation was white meat (I had dark at Zazu) and it was crusted in a spicy, horsradishy mustard and bread crumbs.  It tasted like chicken.  I’m not kidding, chicken.   Really good chicken, don’t get me wrong, but chicken.  This was served with turnips that had been roasted in pork fat and a chokecherry gkace de viande (which is fancy French for a thick brown sauce).  Chef Russo knows how to make sauces.  As with the apple cider reduction, this sauce was fantastic.  Sweet but savory at the same time, delicious with the bite of the spicy mustard.  By this time we were starting to get full!

The rabbit was paired with a Viridiana Roble, Riberu del Duero from Spain.  We loved this wine!  It was dryer than the previous wines and had a big, bold flavor. It was made with Tempranillo grapes, a varietal we both enjoy.  And even better, the retail price point on this wine is about $15.  We’ll be looking for it!

The cheese course was a Shepherd’s Way Farms Friesago.  To me it tasted a lot like a really good Parmesan cheese both in texture and flavor.  It is a natural rind semi-aged sheep milk cheese.  It was called a “must try” by Food and Wine Magazine!  Shepherd’s Way Farm is in Nerstarand, MN, just south of Northfield.  We may need to visit!  This was served with a root vegetable chutney, wildflower honey and a piece of baguette.  The chutney was good but a little sweet for my taste.  The surprise of this course was the honey.  I’m not generally a big fan of honey on its own.  I love it in goat cheese or butter, but I’m not one to slather it on toast.  I may have to amend my ways with this honey!  I loved it.  It was sweet but not cloying and it didn’t have any of that grassy flavor some honey’s have.

After the cheese course we were given a tour of the restaurant.  The six-story brick building was built in 1902.  A furniture company was among its many tenants.  In 1980, it was converted to a mix of commercial and residential condominiums.  Heartland lives in the lower two levels.  We got a tour of the party rooms, one of which overlooks the new Saints Stadium, the refrigerators and freezers and a portion of the building now used for storage that may become the home to sausage making! Heartland will be supplying the Saints with their sausages and hot dogs!

We learned that these beautiful street lamps were the original gas lamps from Kellogg Boulevard. When the city put in electric lighting, the fire marshal took all of the gas lamps for himself.  He was convinced to sell a few for this space.


We were even allowed into the room where Chef Russo cures his meats.  These will take three years to cure! He told us about Bubba, the pig that stood four feet at the shoulder and looked like a Shar Pei with all his rolls.

After our tour was dessert!  Chocolate pots de crème.  Thick, rich dark chocolate “pudding” with whipped cream and a side of Door County sour cherries, oh my. I wanted to ask for a spatula so I could get every last bit!

We had a great time.  Chef Russo is funny and engaging. We learned a lot about the restaurant and food but also about some St. Paul politics too!  We highly recommend Heartland Restaurant and if you have a special occasion, by all means do the Chef’s Table!

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