It had been a while since Id been to Heartland. On my only other visit, I found the food to be of a quality not equal to the price the cassoulet was incredibly salty and mushy. The lighting was not lighting you would expect for fine dining the fluorescence from the kitchen infiltrated the dining area, particularly for those seated closer to the kitchen. On that visit, however, I found the wine list to be well done and well priced, and the service to be above average.
Im happy to report that the wine and service are still top notch (the latter has even improved), and that improvements have been made in both the food quality and the ambience.
On this visit, my wife and I went with another couple, our neighbors. It was part of my taking personal ownership, responsibility, what have you, to patronize certain restaurants more frequently (assuming the quality is worth the price) so that they will stay in business, not become another franchise, and contribute to a neighborhoods and citys quality of life. Heartland is a restaurant that needs that from me and others, is deserving of more business, and has no peer in St. Paul. Zander Café is good, of course. But enough people know about it, and Heartland has a different focus, which Ill get to below. The closest thing to Heartland might be Luci, but theres no comparison whatsoever in terms of quality. Luci has been coasting on reputation much too long.
On my first visit, there were three prix fixe options one for land, one for water, and one that was all vegetables. Tonight there were two Fauna (fish and meat) for $35 and Flora (veggies) for $25. I dont know if this is now a permanent change or if the number of prix fixe options fluctuates with availability of certain ingredients. Each prix fixe menu consists of three courses an appetizer-ish one, an entrée-ish one, and a dessert. The a la carte menu has grown, and I was glad to see so many game options. Not only was there rabbit and venison, but there was also antelope and musk ox. Those more exotic meats come at a higher price, but Heartland is at least delivering something unique in its dining experience. The appetizer-ish items on the a la carte menu were around $8-$10, and the entrées ranged in price from the low 20s to the low 30s. Three desserts were featured, all $8.
One potential knock against Heartland is that from the outside it looks like and wants to be a neighborhood restaurant, but inside it appears more like a special occasion restaurant. I think its trying to be both. As long as it offers the prix fixe options, which are more neighborhood restaurant priced, I believe it can eventually succeed. The clientele on this Thursday evening were more dressed up than I was thinking theyd be (and, consequently, more dressed up than any of us), but its not necessarily a place that demands it.
The wine list is still one of the best values in town, and I put it on par with Zander Café in that regard. There is a large variety of selections from all over the world, and many interesting, food-friendly ones priced $30 and under. Some of the wines in the $50 range are incredible bargains I recognized a handful that retail close to $40.
On to the food. The two women each ordered the Fauna menu, and the two men went a la carte. My counterpart ordered a lamb tartare starter and the antelope for the main course. I began with a salad of field greens, duck prosciutto, hickory nuts, and black currants, and followed it up with the venison.
For the women, the perch was served in a rich crayfish sauce with parasol mushrooms. Intense and pure flavors. The lamb tartare had a great texture, and was something I couldve eaten by the heaping spoonful had I kicked everybody out and taken over the kitchen. My salad was a wonderful combination of flavors, but, to be picky, had a disproportionate amount of nuts and currants to greens.
The pork sirloin entrées with the Fauna menu came with delicato squash, chanterelle mushrooms, and a rich duck stock reduction. The antelope was pepper crusted, and sliced into medallions, served medium rare with roasted turnips and preserved tomatoes. The venison was I steak form, medium rare, and served with grilled scallions, grilled baby eggplant, and a cipolini onion sauce. The pork had terrific flavor. The antelope and venison had just enough gaminess so as not to be nothing more than expensive, lean faux beef. And they were both nicely tender.
The dessert with the Fauna menu was a profiterole (really a cream puff) with rum flavored cream, caramel, and served with cranberries in a sage syrup on one side and honeycrisp apples in a honey syrup on the other. I ate most of my wifes. The only other dessert ordered was a wild rice pudding cake with a cassis-poached pear, blueberry sauce, huge chocolate tuile, and some crème fraiche. Coffee is served in individual press pots.
Service was very good. One minor nit is that our entrées came out a little sooner than we wouldve wanted. We were still finishing white wine when the servers had to rush the red wine out quickly followed by the entrées. Apart from that, there was a nice pace. The food had obviously received painstaking attention to flavor combinations. We left with every intention to return soon, and drove the less than one mile back home. Ahhhh, only in the Twin Cities.