15 of us descended upon this fairly new venture in St. Paul's Macalaster-Groveland neighborhood. This space was home to two tenants that I can remember. Most recently it had been Peter's Bistro - which was a good stop before going to see a movie at the Grandview Theater, but was a place that never really had an identity. Before that it was Napoleon's Bakery - a place that I still miss.
My impressions of Heartland may have been affected by being part of a large group. I would like to visit again as a party of 2-4.
The word on the street regarding this restaurant is that the food is very good - expert preparations using almost exclusively local ingredients (hence the name), but that the portions are small for the price. My first reaction to this criticism is that "Minnesota small" means regular-sized to many other parts of the U.S. After all, the measuring stick for portion size here in the heartland has tended to be Old Country Buffet. Having now eaten at Heartland, I can understand the criticism. But I still think that the cost is justified given the quality and selectivity of the ingredients.
There are two approaches one can take to the menu - prix fixe or a la carte. There are three prix fixe options, a meat and game at $35, a fish and seafood at $30, and a vegetable at $25. Each option consists of two savory courses and a dessert. I was a little surprised that a different dessert is "assigned" to each prix fixe option. I would think that diners should be allowed some choice here. If you choose to go a la carte, you can select from some of the prix fixe items, or choose from items not included in any of the prix fixe menus. On this visit, my wife ordered the fish and seafood prix fixe ($30), and I went off the board with a duck prosciutto salad ($10) and the cassoulet, which included elk, duck, rabbit ($24). No matter which approach you take, an amuse and a cheese course are also provided, inclusive.
The amuse was a seared venison tenderloin medallion topped with a strawberry slice, some arugula, some walnuts, and a flavored oil (but I can't recall the flavoring). I don't know if a vegetarian ordering the vegetable prix fixe would be stuck with this amuse or not. This one-biter was packed with flavor, and it all went together nicely.
My wife's first course was a freshwater bass chunk, dolled up. It was fantastic. So was the duck prosciutto salad with huge blackberries and pecans. It was perfectly dressed and nicely seasoned. So far, so good. Little was I to know that we had reached the peak of dinner. My wife's second course was a salmon fillet with asparagus and other goodies. She said the salmon was good, the asparagus was good, the goodies were good, but that the whole package was a little less than the sum of its parts - they just didn't fit together as well as they could have. The cassoulet showed signs of a heavy hand with the salt. The duck leg confit that topped it was too salty to the point of being inedible - mixing it into the stew helped a little. Had it been just the two of us, I may have sent it back. But being a party of 15, you sometimes just go along. Others who ordered the cassoulet had similar impressions. The cheese course was a big disappointment - one very small piece (about 1 inch x 1 inch x 1/4 inch - I'm not kidding) of Wisconsin cheddar and three homemade crackers the size of Wheat Thins. I didn't order a separate dessert - my wife and I decided to share. It was a beautifully presented pastry of some sort that looked better than it tasted - a bit dry.
We had brought our own wines, but the wine list is very well done - great selection and incredible attractive pricing. Whatever one may think of the pricing of the food in relation to portion size, one can not complain about being gouged on the wine list. Speaking of portion size, they were smaller than I was antiicpating, so I'm figuring the price was reflecting ingredient acquisition and quality, which cannot be debated IMO.
Service was professional and courteous. No complaints whatsoever. Excellent stemware was provided for the wine. Ambience will vary depending upon where one sits. It's a small room (I think 42 seats), and there is a display-type kitchen along one entire wall. The kitchen, of course, needs fluorescent lighting. But if you are seated close to it, it makes for a starker lighting experience than you might otherwise expect. Tables further away experience more ambient lighting. The primo table to have is tucked into an alcove and sits 2-4.
So it was an experience that showed promise and potential. It's worth going to again, but with a smaller number in the dining party for a different experience. It's nice to have a restaurant that aspires to what this one aspires to become in the neighborhood, and I hope it succeeds.
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