Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Pastrami-cured ocean trout, black pudding, and roast chicken at Heirloom in St. Paul
Not many of us can remember when Café Brenda opened way back in 1986 with the dream of being the veggie-focused Chez Panisse of the Twin Cities. A few more can recall those heady days in 2002, when Lenny Russo launched Heartland using only local ingredients. The movement of returning control to the hands of farmers as well as chefs looking for the highest quality ingredients was so revolutionary that we gave it a name: farm to table.
That doesn’t seem so long ago, does it? Isn’t it funny, then, that we are now in a place where someone like chef Wyatt Evans can open a restaurant doing seasonal modern farmhouse cooking with local ingredients, and we hardly bat an eye? “Local” has become such a part of the way we perceive and evaluate local restaurants that it’s barely news anymore.
Evans’s restaurant, Heirloom, is his first—a small eatery at the corner of Marshall and Cretin, in St. Paul’s Merriam Park neighborhood. It’s already become a destination for people who live in the area. On one particularly snowy evening when I visited, walkers ambled in and were greeted by name. It’s cozy inside, with barn wood walls and mismatched chairs. There’s a humble, DIY feel to the place that is authentic, and not “authentic” as orchestrated by some design firm.
Having spent many years as the chef of W.A. Frost, Evans has plenty of St. Paul cred. But his cooking here comes off as so much simpler and humbler than what he’d done in the land of stately fireplaces—though it’s no less accomplished. Dishes at Heirloom are broken into three categories that roughly suggest small plates, middle plates, and mains.
Pert winter lettuces touched with buttermilk dressing and hiding a beautiful soft-boiled egg are a celebration of simplicity. The same goes for the toothy farm bread and rolls served with cultured kefir butter, the tang of which could single-handedly bring back the bread course trend. If you want to argue the local nature of pastrami-cured ocean trout, you’ll miss out on a beautiful dish that is both meaty and silky. The cold-smoked trout is dusted with pastrami spices and balanced by whipped, peppery horseradish clouds playing against tart pickled onions.
I found the middle of the Heirloom’s menu to be the most fertile ground for great flavor, starting with a black pudding that knocked my socks off. It’s a smallish brick, dark as night, of what basically amounts to porky meatloaf constructed of blood and fat and bound with steel-cut oats. The result is at once luscious and lighter than you’d ever think. And here’s a little tip: The pudding is also available on the brunch menu with a poached egg that brings it to the next level. Another under-promised, over-delivered middle-of-the-menu treat: the meat pie, which arrived in a whimsical little pastry package, with cinnamon-scented braised meats given punch with green tomato chutney. If you feel like dragging it through the sharp English mustard and accompanying pickled bits, all the better.
As for the larger, more complete plates, the roast chicken with vegetables was a sturdy and simple comfort, as was the freshwater fish, perfectly seared with a moist flake on a rich and earthy barley-studded mushroom broth. Not everything was perfect. The brisket was tough and inedible, and the pork jowl was a mess that couldn’t find a foothold beyond fattiness. But these missteps were in the minority.
It must have been hard opening a farm-inspired restaurant in the dead of winter, but Evans did a commendable job, playing pickled vegetables throughout the menu to add brightness and pop without overwhelming with vinegar. He cooks intricately to bring out the best in these humble ingredients, an approach that beautifully reflects the guiding principle of the farm-to-table movement: to make refined dishes that remain humble in the eyes of the eater. I can only imagine what the spring harvest will yield in his new “farmhouse” kitchen. 2186 Marshall Ave., St. Paul, 651-493-7267, heirloomstpaul.com