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Burger Friday: Heartland

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: December 6, 2013 - 2:08 PM

The burger: When the new Saints ballpark opens across Broadway Street from his Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in 2015, chef Lenny Russo is going be ready. Burger-wise, anyway.

Russo didn’t serve a burger at the original Mac-Groveland incarnation of his local-local-local restaurant. “We couldn’t bring in the whole animal – because we didn’t have the room – consequently, we didn’t have the byproduct,” he said. Translation: Heartland 1.0 lacked have the physcial resources to deal with the hefty shoulder clods that Russo prefers to funnel into his burger.

That all changed when the restaurant relocated to spacious new Lowertown digs in 2011. The trade-up afforded Russo all kinds of fun-and-games opportunities.

Including a burger, ground fresh from that muscular shoulder meat. It's sourced from seemingly every top-flight restaurant’s go-to heritage breed grass-fed beef supplier, and a familiar name to Burger Friday readers (I swear, there's no kickback involved). Yes, I'm talking about Peterson Limousin Farms in Osceola, Wis. Or, in Russo-speak, “Andy and Wayne Peterson,” a knee-jerk familiarity that's natural to this most farm-focused of chefs.

Once again, the Petersons' product is of such superior quality that it requires almost nothing to catapult it into hamburger fabulousness. Sometimes the meat is so lean that Russo grinds a bit of the animal’s fat back into it. Seasonings are simple, just a splash of Worcestershire sauce and a bit of salt and pepper before the patty hits the charbroiler grill. Lightly charred and cooked to a fragrant, deeply pink medium-rare, it’s the kind of patty that runs appetite-inducing juices from the very first bite. 

Another chief asset is the burger's first-rate bun. It's baked on the premises, naturally, by the talented Ben Buirge, a deeply golden beauty that's just barely toasted on the grill. It's one of those rare burger buns that couples milky softness with an inner strength, one that stands up to the patty’s prodigious juiciness. If they're available for sale for the home-cooking crowd in the restaurant's Farm Direct Market, I haven't seen them. Here's hoping they are. Perhaps Russo could sell them alongside the exceptional cinnamon-packed breakfast rolls that I can’t seem to stop consuming. 

Russo knows that a great patty and an equally top-notch bun don't require investing in a lot of embellishment. Restraint would be the word that best describes the modest garnish roster. Tender lettuce, a tomato slice possessing more flavor than a late-November tomato should have, and a couple super-tangy bread-and-butter pickle slices. That's it. And it works.

Actually, there's one more item: two (house-made, naturally) condiments. There's a gutsy mustard, but it's upstaged by an ever-changing ketchup formula, made using “whatever fruit we happen to have in the house,” said Russo. “Sometimes we’ll add peppers, which technically are also a fruit. We’re always doing something wacky.” Whatever the combo, it's a welcome break from the universality that is Heinz. We would expect no less from Heartland.

Fries: Included, and made from potatoes Russo taps in southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin. The crew hand-cuts them, stores them in the freezer and pulls them out when needed, and they're terrific, twinkling with coarse salt and brimming with unadulterated potato goodness.

The kitchen serves them by the generous handful, pairing them with wide, shallow trays filled with ketchup and mustard. What a great idea: the tray's surface area -- much larger than the standard mini-ramiken or stainless steel portion cup -- means you can drag those long fries through a pool of sauce, really bathing a significant percentage of each fried potato in a maximum amount of that excellent ketchup. Genius.

Celebrate: Ok, so he's not including a burger on his three fixed-price ($75) four-course New Year's Eve dinners -- one beef-pork-duck, another featuring freshwater fish, the third vegetarian -- but consider reserving a table in Russo's serene, loft-like dining room for your ringing-in-the-new-year venue.

Price: $14. Dinner only, bar only.

Address book: 289 E. 5th St., St. Paul, 651-699-3536. Open 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with food orders available through 9:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday and through 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Talk to me: Have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

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