Heartland chef/co-owner announced earlier this week that his 14-year-old Lowertown restaurant would be closing on Dec. 31.
A conversation with Russo -- a trip down 30-plus years of cooking in the Twin Cities -- led to a stroll through the Star Tribune's archives. Here's what we unearthed. (That's Russo, above, photographed in the Heartland dining room on Tuesday by Star Tribune staff photographer Leila Navidi)
1986: Stonewings, Bloomington: "I came away convinced that Stonewings has a lot of potential, and it's obvious that some serious efforts are being made to improve the caliber of the place," wrote Star Tribune critic Jeremy Iggers, after Russo had been appointed executive chef.
1992: Blackberry Creek Market, Minneapolis. Russo was the subject of a weekly "Meet the Chef" profile, which reads:
"Chef/manager at/ Blackberry Creek Market, 2210 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis.
Training/ From New Jersey; has southern Italian heritage. Earned his fees for New College, Sarasota, Fla., by working as a chef. For 10 years worked both as a chef and a child/adolescent psychotherapist.
Experience/ Came to Minnesota in 1985. Worked at Nigel's, the Rosewood Room, Bix Fruit, D'Amico & Partners, Loring Cafe and Hosteria Fiorentina. In '87 joined U.S. Restaurants as corporate chef and doubled as executive chef of Trigger's Restaurant in the Minnesota Horse and Hunt Club. In 1990 went to Faegre's Bar and Restaurant as executive chef. Came to present position from Aveda Corp., where he managed three food outlets, launched a retail food line and lectured on food."
The story included a recipe. Find it below.
1999: W.A. Frost & Co., St. Paul. "What's the best way to beef up a restaurant's reputation in a hurry? Easy: Hire a well-known chef, revamp the menu, send out publicity and wait for the reviews to pour in," wrote critic Jeremy Iggers. "At least, that's the formula for two popular St. Paul restaurants, the St. Paul Grill and W. A. Frost & Co. At Frost, the new chef is Lenny Russo, whose previous stints (some of them quite short) include the Loring Cafe, New French Cafe, Faegre's and Triggers. Russo's new menu definitely signals an intention to raise the restaurant's gastronomic profile."
2002: Heartland, St. Paul. "Is Midwestern haute cuisine an oxymoron?" asked critic Jeremy Iggers. "Not according to Lenny Russo. Heartland, Russo's stylish new 'contemporary Midwestern' St. Paul cafe, boldly takes diners where few chefs have ventured before: our own back yard. The Hoboken, N.J., native, previously the executive chef at W.A. Frost & Co., offers a Midwestern haute cuisine that features dishes such as Minnesota wild boar chop with maple-glazed baby root vegetables and preserved blueberry sauce, and pan-roasted Wisconsin rabbit with yellow foot chanterelle mushrooms and blackberry glace de viande. Not exactly the kind of cooking most Midwesterners grew up with. Russo is fanatic about ingredients; his meat and poultry all come from small local producers, as does much of his produce."
2006: Cue and Level 5 at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis. "Cue is the latest act in Russo's long-running career, which includes reviving high-volume W.A. Frost & Co. and launching Heartland, the St. Paul gem that practices a sophisticated prairie-to-plate philosophy," wrote critic Rick Nelson. "That same emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients drives Cue's engine, no easy strategy for a kitchen feeding hundreds of theatergoers on tight deadlines. Cue is one production that genuinely merits that greatest of all Minnesota theater traditions, the standing ovation."
2010: Heartland's ambitious new Lowertown home. "Take one gander at the spotless workrooms, the spacious private dining areas, the three chef's tables, the long deli counter, the gleaming exhibition kitchen and the constantly-in-motion crew, and here's the message that echoes, loud and clear: A lasting commitment to locally raised foods built and supports this impressive enterprise," wrote critic Rick Nelson in a four-star review. "There's nothing else quite like it in the state. Heartland is a role model for the burgeoning local foods movement, one that's bound to become more important with each passing year."
2016: A Heartland cookbook. "It’s been quite the year for Lenny Russo, who spent last spring prepping to represent Minnesota and its food at the Milan World Expo for the James Beard Foundation," wrote Taste editor Lee Svitak Dean. "Today he’s a finalist for the sixth time for the Beard 'Best Chef Midwest' award, to be announced in early May. And now the chef/co-owner of Heartland restaurant is an author. 'I don’t have a bucket list, but I definitely have a checklist, and this was one of the things I wanted to do,' he said in an interview. Heartland: Farm-Forward Dishes From the Great Midwest (Burgess Lea Press, 288 pages, $35), which arrives in bookstores in early May, is a call to action from Russo and a celebration of our region, in the form of stories, photos and recipes from one of our earliest proponents of local foods."
Here's a benchmark of Russo's role as a national tastemaker: the Wall Street Journal has been publishing a number of his recipes over the past few weeks, including Creamy Heirloom Tomato Soup, Braised Escarole and Cannellini Beans, Grilled Pork with Corn Relish and Tomato Salad and Seared Trout with Trout Roe Creme Fraiche.
As promised, here's that recipe from Russo's Blackberry Creek Market era. Since it was the early 1990s, when iceberg still ruled the lettuce world, Russo noted "that mesclun salad mix is a mixture of wild field greens" and that the following recipe "includes baby oak and red leaf lettuce, arugula, pepper cress and sorrel." Good to know.
BLACKBERRY CREEK SALAD NICOISE
4 (4-oz.) portions of fresh tuna, thickly sliced
1 c. Tomato-Rosemary Vinaigrette (Recipe follows)
4 c. mesclun salad mix
24 pickled green beans
4 baby red potatoes, quartered, steamed and chilled
16 Nicoise olives
4 ripe red tomatoes, quartered
2 oz. capers or caper berries
Brush the tuna lightly with olive oil and grill until medium rare. Reserving 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette, toss the mesclun salad mix with the remaining vinaigrette. Arrange one-fourth each of the beans, tomatoes, potatoes and tuna on four chilled plates. Garnish with olives and capers.
Makes 2 1/2 cups.
Note: In this preparation, the tomato puree works as the acid, as lemon juice or vinegar do in traditional vinaigrette dressings, Russo said.
4 ripe red tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. minced shallots
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 tsp. sea salt or kosher salt
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1 c. olive oil
In a food processor, puree the tomatoes until smooth. Strain through a fine sieve to remove seeds and skin. Return puree to the food processor and add the garlic, shallots, rosemary, salt and pepper. With the processor running, slowly add the oil until the dressing is emulsified.