Sunday, May 15, 2011


Have you seen "The King's Speech" yet? No question about it, fine film. But one of, to me, the most effective things about it was the use of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony during the big speech scene. It's glorious music. Nothing in the world like it. And if Beethoven is not your thing, then stop reading my blog, because you clearly hate freedom, and I'm not sure we can be friends.

Okay, wait. Before you leave, let me acknowledge what may be your only excuse. In the world of classical music, "not liking" a piece doesn't really mean all that much. Because there are a lot of things that can be wrong, even with a great piece. Maybe the orchestra isn't all that good. Maybe the conductor doesn't like, or doesn't get, the music. Maybe the entire brass section walked out due to cantankerous union negotiations and got replaced with the local high school jazz band. My point is, if you don't like it, it might not be your fault. Might not even be the piece's fault.

Restaurants are like that. Miss J and I had a couple of lousy burgers at The American Burger Bar. Does that mean I don't like burgers? Um, no. I adore them. Makes it even easier to spot a dud. The sad truth is that, most of the time, you don't get a definitive experience in a restaurant. Even the good ones. So if you try a new thing, something exciting that you've never tasted before, and it doesn't work for you, who's to say what the problem is?

At Heartland, you're not going to have this problem. If you order a smoked chicken and blue cheese fritter here, and don't like it, you can sleep well knowing that you will never like a smoked chicken and blue cheese fritter. Why? Because Heartland, as far as I can tell, is not going to do anything wrong. In fact, they're likely to do everything so spectacularly right, that you'll have to catch your breath before you can even finish eating.

If restaurants were a religion (Now there's a subject for another post.), and you had to climb a solitary mountaintop somewhere to meet the One Great Teacher, Lenny Russo is the guy you'd find when you finally got there. Chef Russo is on a mission. Find fresh, wonderful, local stuff, think up interesting ways to use it, and then cook it all to perfection. Apparently that's all much, much harder than it sounds, because I can't think of anyone else locally who's even trying it, much less pulling it off.

What makes it all work for Heartland is its ability to be two different restaurants. You can go crazy and have a more or less traditional dinner, or you can hop around the small plates menu until they have to wheel you out. We took full advantage. Miss J had a three-course prix fixe. First up was trout, pan-seared, simple and tasty. The main course was elk roast. Elk was a new experience, but it was gorgeous, medium rare and wondrously flavorful. The fingerling potatoes made a fine complement. Dessert was a chocolate hazelnut torte, in a pool of creme anglaise and raspberry sauce. Miss J has no opinion about that one, because I ate it. Let me tell you- seriously good stuff.

I, on the other hand, was feeling more adventurous than usual, so I decided to play. We split a beautiful Wisconsin-centered cheese plate to go with our opening prosecco course. Fantastic cheeses, and some really surprising beets. From there I moved on to the small plates. I began with the aforementioned fritters, and it's hard for me to even talk about these. They're served up with a charred tomato aioli and a celery salad. I have one tiny issue with celery. I hate it. Like sunburn, or the Vikings. Hate hate hate. But I tried the salad, and it wasn't bad. I wasn't about to finish it, but it was a nice surprise. The fritters were straight-up food porn. I broke through the perfectly crispy crust to discover a snow-white pocket of melted blue cheese and smoked chicken. They were perfectly suited to the accompaniments, and conversation stopped completely while I meditated on these little gems. My second choice was the pork rillettes. Rillettes are basically deconstructed pork. They're salted and cooked slowly in their own fat, until they are as close to a beverage as meat can ever get. Decadent, flavorful, and unlike anything I've had. They were served up in a series of small bowls, along with curried mushrooms, fennel chutney (excellent idea), and a pile of little toasts. It was a beautiful little self-contained buffet, and I enjoyed every bite. Literally. If I could have come up with a gracious way to lick the bowls, I would have. Miss J finished up with strawberry & white peach sorbet. I went for the coffee, because I was lured by the little individual French presses that kept walking by. Both were unsurprisingly well done.

As a whole, Heartland offered up as perfect a meal as you could hope to encounter. But lest I turn you all off with my unabashed praise, I feel compelled to mention a couple of things. First off, Heartland is not a big-portion sort of place. If you want to leave a restaurant in pain, look up the nearest Cheesecake Factory, and have fun with your leftovers. This is seriously fine food, but quality is the issue here, not quantity. Second, you need to be prepared to spend some money. If you feel like a drink, stop by the bar. A couple of martinis and a small plate or two, and you could actually do Heartland without breaking the bank. The burger, we noticed, was ample and reasonable, and will help your cause here. But if your goal is dinner, it's best if you're not worried about how much you're going to spend, because you're going to spend plenty. Normally this doesn't bother me, at least not when I understand what I'm getting for that money. But here are two observations. A dish of sorbet, unless it's made from saffron and topped with edible gold leaf sprinkles, should not cost anyone ten bucks. Just shouldn't. You could leave Izzy's with two pints for around that much, and I expect I don't need to tell you how good that would be. And my little press pot, as good as it was, was offered without a refill, and basically furnished one eight-ounce cup of coffee. This, in my book, does not constitute a five-dollar experience. No matter how wonderful your restaurant is.

There. Two small gripes. But seriously. If it's date night, and you want to enjoy some beautiful food, you will not soon forget Heartland. Oh, and sit in the bar. You get a whole extra menu, and it's cozier (and quieter) than the dining room.

1 comment:

  1. love, love, love, love Heartland!!!!

    and would like to share that when we were there, my husband actually turned to the waitress and said, "do you have any other more expensive coffees?"