Beyond its essence as a garlicky bean and meat stew with a breadcrumb cap, the "Midwestern Cassoulet" served at Heartland in St. Paul is a go-with-the-flow recipe. Its contents change daily depending on what arrives in the restaurant's butchery department and market. Paula Foreman, who runs nearby Encore Farms, delivers variations on white beans (recently it was the speckled bird's-eye variety) in fifty-pound batches to Heartland's chef-owner Lenny Russo. In the dish's combination of animal proteins, Russo looks for balance: a sausage, a smoked addition, something with an especially lush texture. A form of pork is always present, but numerous cuts of lamb, goat, beef, elk, and rabbit also make it into rotation. Russo calls it "the Noah's Ark of cassoulets."
The approach strays from the traditional variants in France's Languedoc region, where the dish originated, but it was still the most satisfying version I've ever had in an American restaurant. The crust (panko flecked with parsley and glossed with duck fat) gave intermittent crackle to the sumptuous, motley ragout underneath. Approaching the cassoulet with flexibility gives it staying power as one of the few regular items on Heartland's always-evolving menu.
Russo opened the restaurant in 2002 after cooking in the Twin Cities for over a decade. He'd already established a reputation as a chef who spent his free time roaming the state, connecting with farmers and learning what grows in the region's disparate seasons. He relocated Heartland a decade later to its current address — a vast space in St. Paul's Lowertown warehouse district shrewdly broken into fetching sections, including a dining room lined with brick and reclaimed woods, an expansive lounge area anchored by a bar underneath a floating red ceiling, and the Farm Direct Market that sells the same meats and vegetables the cooks use to prepare dinner.
Russo goes the locavore distance: Around 90 percent of the food at Heartland comes from within a 300-mile radius. But there's nothing fussy or self-satisfied about the experience. In a nod to the forthcoming ballpark being built close to the restaurant, the substantial bar menu includes four burgers (beef, pork, veal, and bison) and fun, smart riffs on snacks like smoked kielbasa corndogs or cheese curds with apricot ketchup. In the main room, entrees dole out bear hugs of direct, honest flavors: rainbow trout over wild rice in green tomato broth, a rosy veal chop with braised kale and fingerling potatoes atop toasted pumpkin seed puree. Russo's devotion to culinary Minnesota is evident in every forkful.
While Heartland embodies the largesse of Midwest cooking and hospitality, Piccolo celebrates local bounty through the diminutive. The restaurant, on a quiet corner of Minneapolis's Southwest neighborhood, seats 36. All of the menu's 16 plates come in petite sizes: Each can be ordered separately, or five can comprise a $56 tasting menu. Even the name is Italian for "small." Chef and co-owner Doug Flicker worked at some of the city's top-liners, including the Loring Cafe and bygone D'Amico Cucina, before opening a place in 2010 where he could scale down in scope but not ambition. I can't decide if Flicker's food is more pictorial (each dish is an edible sculpture) or musical (he uses countless ingredients but they harmonize with perfect pitch).
Mixing and matching via the tasting menu option illuminated several aspects of Flicker's cooking personality. He did the season proud with a crisp-skinned rectangle of suckling pig adorned with a curvy sliver of grilled pear. Chestnut puree lent autumnal earthiness and honey echoed the pear's sweetness. Chestnut appeared again at dessert, flavoring a cake ball adrift in a canoe-shaped vessel with poached quince, candied pepitas, and dollops of sweetened parsnip puree. Then there was Flicker's luxury-loving side: loosely scrambled eggs gilded with pickled pig's feet morsels, truffle butter, and a stack of petals made from Parmigiano-Reggiano; rabbit tortellini in peppery nasturtium butter, dotted with hazelnuts and goat cheese. His all-in experimenter traits showed with a disc of orangey monkfish liver mousse. It formed the perimeter that held a quenelle of celeriac "tartare," a silky wisp of cured Arctic char, and crisped salmon skin that resembled the rudder-like gnomon on a sundial. The mousse itself was rather gluey, the one miss in an otherwise tour-de-force display of execution.
How disorienting and inspiring to find such craftsmanship in so unassuming a location. I came early on a Monday night to find an empty dining room. By 8 p.m., though, the place purred with diners appreciating Flicker's individualism as much as I did.
Russell and Desta Klein (who own St. Paul's celebrated Meritage, among several other restaurants) opened this downtown Minneapolis looker this past April, just as Minnesota's glacial winter temperatures were beginning to ease. The city's critics have raved, and the seats fill, but I think Brasserie Zentral will enjoy even greater appreciation as the mercury again dips for the long haul. It specializes in central European dishes, the kind engineered to sustain souls through lengthy stretches of cold, gray days.
Let's start with Zentral's schnitzel, at once elegant and rustic. Schnitzel waxes and wanes as a national fad; lately it was interpreted as flat animal protein (pick one: veal, pork, turkey, scallops) plus breading. Russell Klein should teach master classes on the subject. His is not a hubcap-size gut buster, but it is impressively correct: turkey or veal (I prefer the latter) pounded to a slip and encased by — but not clinging to — sheer, rippling batter. It needs nothing else yet nonetheless benefits from sides of mustard-zinged potato salad; creamy, dill-laced tangles of cucumbers; and chunky lingonberry sauce. Among the dumplings and pastas, squiggly spaetzle rich with braised rabbit, mushrooms, and Gruyere is obvious and wonderful. Consider, too, the subtler spaghetti with crisp speck, scallions, poppy seeds, and plenty of pecorino. It warms in ways universal and enduring.
As does the kavalierspitz, humble boiled beef goosed with marrow and a shower of horseradish, served with creamed spinach, root vegetables, and apple-horseradish sauce. It's comforting Sunday dinner any time of the week. If it sounds too heavy for lunch, try the generous cabbage and duck confit salad with punchy lingonberry-marjoram vinaigrette. And if you have any affinity for foie gras, Russell makes stunning streusels and terrines from the duck livers of one of the country's best and most humane-minded producers, Au Bon Canard in Caledonia, Minnesota.
With its white globe lighting fixtures, long banquettes patterned in red and gold, and lanky hardwoods, Zentral looks the part of an Austrian brasserie without skewing to kitsch. The restaurant is a boon for downtown workers and for chill-shocked visitors in need of thawing nourishment.
Jim Christiansen's cooking doesn't exactly warm, though it certainly titillates. In fact, the most startling and memorable dishes I had at Heyday, where Christiansen is chef and co-owner, were pointedly cold. Chilled blue mussels came buried under a blizzard of frozen yogurt. A dessert called "Fifty Shades of Hay" went full-blast modernist. Hay ice cream acted as a neutral zone. Perched atop it: a meringue dyed black from hay ash. Below: grapefruit segments frozen in nitrogen, the pulp separated and scattered with crumbly elements derived from things like hay-buckwheat tea, white chocolate, smoked hay, and black licorice parfait. Amazingly, all those oddities coalesced into something easy to relish.
Christiansen has been pushing boundaries for years in Minneapolis, but he's finally met his audience at Heyday. Of course there are more overtly genial dishes — like a classic beef tartare or a playful dish of rabbit leg, ham, and sausage with carrots in various guises — but diners have embraced his experimental nature. It also helps that the staff tackles smart cocktails, craft beers, and offbeat wines with equal confidence. And that the space looks like a barn overrun by hipsters, with twinkly chandeliers among a hodgepodge of woods and wall-filling paintings of animals in wild primary colors. Hear the twelve-string guitar pounding overhead? It's likely The Replacements; one of the songs from their album Hootenanny inspired the restaurant's name. Like the band, Heyday is a taste of alternative Minneapolis — a place to trust Christiansen to tinker with global cuisines and styles and still make sense on the plate.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Photos: Bill Addison