While glancing through the menu at Heirloom (2186 Marshall Av., St. Paul, 651-493-7267), my attention immediately landed on an item labeled “Interesting Vegetables.”
Good question. I put it to our server. Just how interesting are those vegetables?
“Very,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “You will not be disappointed.”
We weren’t. Who would be, when presented with a kitchen garden medley of hyper-seasonal winter veggies, their flavors, textures and colors heightened by a blizzard of cooking techniques, from pickling to roasting to blanching to charring.
This cornucopia was arranged with a Cézanne-like improvisational quality, although I’m fairly certain that the 19th-century French painter did not have gossamer (and delicately, wonderfully buttery) whey foam at his disposal.
It’s the most forward-thinking relish tray imaginable, and the effort and imagination behind it speaks volumes about the ambitions of this peach of a restaurant.
After more than a decade at W.A. Frost & Co. — including six years at the kitchen’s helm — chef/owner Wyatt Evans has struck out on his own.
Now that he’s his own boss, the self-trained Evans (“I learned in the school of hard knocks,” he said with a laugh) is using his skill set to deftly flip neighborhood restaurant assumptions on their ear.
Instead of offering the same-old, same-old routine of fried chicken sandwiches, Caesar salads and flatbreads, the Heirloom menu leads diners down a far more nuanced — and food-forward — path. Here’s the welcome news: Most prices stay in the teens, or less.
Rather than go the risotto route, Evans focuses on sprouted farro, barley, wild rice and pumpkin seeds to forge a hearty, satisfying porridge, topping it with a poached egg and spicy kimchi-style carrots.
Evans cleverly expands the gravlax universe by curing fatty Scottish ocean trout with pastrami spices, then reinforces the pastrami vibe by cold-smoking the fish.
He doesn’t stop there. The silky fish is rubbed in squid ink, and then out come the classic pastrami sandwich garnishes: horseradish, rye crisps, cabbage sprouts and pickled red onions. It’s ingenious, and delicious.
Fans of roast chicken, make a beeline to Heirloom. It helps that Evans starts with well-raised birds (from Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes, Minn., a Gopher State treasure), but his know-how and temperament play key roles, too.
After a juniper/ginger brine, the birds are dried overnight, then seared in a hot cast iron pan (producing that delectably crispy skin) and finished in the oven, all the while lovingly basted with garlic and rosemary, until the meat is juicy and ultra-flavorful.
Other huzzahs: the crispy-edged yet melt-in-your-mouth beef brisket, winter lettuces brushed with a tangy buttermilk dressing, and pan-roasted trout.
Don’t miss the black pudding. It’s basically a pork meatloaf (Evans skips the traditional sausage casing), a blend of liver and heart and plenty of fat that’s seasoned with sage and mustard seed, bound with steel cut oats and darkened with pig’s blood.
Not everything works. The idea of a savory pie is to be encouraged, and it mostly works, with chicken thighs and pork shoulder braised in a cinnamon-scented broth. But the actual pie — fashioned into a whimsically braided jewelry box, using a cream cheese pastry — was dry and brittle, and a deconstructed green tomato chutney was uncharacteristically overpowering, an anomaly on a menu of otherwise refined cooking.
Breads and sweets
Pastry chef Albert Hirsch ably demonstrates that desserts can be satisfying without resorting to toothache-inducing sweetness.
Kudos to Hirsch’s ever-changing bread selection, which, oddly, comes at a price: $3, for a modest roll (consider it your lucky day if he’s in his brioche mode), a smallish slice (his seed-flecked loaves are first-rate) and a crock of butter. Wouldn’t a slight bump in prices across the menu, to underwrite a gratis bread basket, make more sense?
Another plus: the discerning cheese list, a half-dozen best-in-show thrillers from Minnesota and Wisconsin (including a rare and welcome restaurant appearance by LoveTree Farmstead in Grantsburg, Wis.), beautifully presented and thoughtfully available in mix-and-match combinations.
“It’s a way to celebrate where we’re from,” said Evans. “You can’t experience the Midwest without eating these cheeses.” So true.
I almost forgot: Sunday brunch is a treat. Hirsch gets busy, cranking out goodies that evoke grandmotherly prowess, from gooey, yeasty, pecan-studded caramel rolls to a butter-saturated coffee cake.
Most notable is a sizable slice of grilled rustic bread that’s liberally smeared with fatty pork rillettes and garnished with palate-cleansing pickled onions. It’s easily the bar’s best snack, and when Wyatt piles on the fluffy scrambled eggs, he transforms it into what might be my new favorite Sunday a.m. snack.
Meanwhile, at the bar
That bar menu is tailor-made for neighborhood drop-ins, and at the $5-and-under level, it’s priced accordingly. Rather than yield to the ubiquitous burger, Evans offers a snappy all-beef hot dog (from premium purveyor Peterson Limousin Beef in Osceola, Wis.) in a house-baked bun that’s a riff on Hirsch’s chicken fat-enriched brioche roll.
Smallish chicken wings, glazed in a sweet-and-spicy sauce, are an ideal complement to the bar’s well-crafted craft beer list. There’s even a crudité variation on the kitchen’s signature “Interesting Vegetables” dish, calling upon the buttermilk dressing from that pretty salad as a dip.
Wyatt has fashioned a comfortable, easygoing dining space from a pair of linked storefronts, peppering the setting with plenty of requisite restaurant design details, including an up-close-and-personal kitchen counter. Could this be the last gasps of the reclaimed wood craze? Stay tuned.
There’s a modest parking lot out back, but most visitors will have to rely upon the limited spaces available along Marshall Avenue. The rest of the surrounding area is given over to permit parking, so those driving should plan accordingly. Better yet, walk, bike or take the bus.
The service staff is so diligent at fulfilling their duties that I momentarily pondered the possible consequences (Termination? Exclusion from the Secret Santa gift exchange at the company Christmas party?) of allowing water glass levels to dip below the halfway point.
My one hope is that this disciplined crew takes a less granular approach to their enthusiastic “Let me take you through the menu” spiels, which tend to spin themselves into Hamlet’s soliloquy-length monologues. If we have questions, we’ll ask. Deal?
On the subject of service, Heirloom is a no-tipping zone. Well, sort of. A flat 18 percent service charge — shared with everyone in the kitchen, behind the bar and in the dining room — is tacked onto the bottom of every tab.
But that’s followed by a blank space marked “tip.”
“If you wish to reward your server above the Service Charge please write in the tip line,” is how it’s outlined on the receipt.
Hello, gray area. Is the implication that diners should tip above and beyond the mandatory 18 percent? If so, how much? Are those who opt out considered creeps?
My two cents: For those restaurants admirably going gratuity-free, go all-in. Don’t try and have it both ways. It’s too confusing.
Besides, a neighborhood restaurant this good deserves better than a muddled message.