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Jfood returns to Heartland (MSP) - Food a 10; Management/Owner a Zero

For his last meal in MSP this week Jfood decided, at the recommendation of an MSP hound, to re-visit Heartland. It has been over a year since his last visit but Jfood looked at the on-line menu and was excited about the offerings.

Of particular note to his tastebuds were two appetizers, the Grilled chicken-apple sausage with turnip-potato purée, roasted baby carrots and smoked crabapple jam $12 and the House-smoked Duroc pork ribs with wild mushroom-chestnut cornbread pudding and tart cherry-tomato catsup $14. The entrée that really caught his eye was the Midwestern cassoulet of Duroc pork, smoked wild boar, garlic lamb sausage, pork shoulder confit and Nebraska great northern white beans $19

He drove up to SP, found a great parking spot and entered the wine bar side. It was about half filled and the end seat at the bar was open…perfect. The server brought the menu and Jfood was glad to see the choices were all available. Since Jfood is allergic to nuts, he nixed the pork ribs and ordered the sausage and the cassoulet. The server filled the water glass, brought some bread and butter and a amuse bouche, comprised of garlic-pumpkin mousse and topped with a green tomato chutney. The amuse was fantastic. Jfood remember why he loved this place. The bread was not to Jfood's liking, a little too dense, a little too heavy in flavor, but that is purely personal choice.

Jfood was busy reading his McGee book when the appetizer arrived. He continued reading as he took a big first bite. Crunch!! Huh? He looked at the plate and was confused. The reason he did not order the ribs was the cornbread pudding because it contained nuts, and there staring back at him from the plate was none other than the mushroom-chestnut cornbread pudding. Oh crap. He called the server over and asked for the menu because he thought maybe he made a mistake, but nope, the wrong side was included. So Jfood could not stay for long as he would probably break out in hives in about 15 minutes. He told the server and asked to speak with the MOD. It was a while before she saw fit to speak with Jfood and he will return to that discussion below. But Jfood left, went for some Benadryl, and returned.

The server was so professional for the rest of the evening that he must commend her actions, her attitude, her caring about Jfood's health when he returned. She set up a spot at the bar and a new, and correctly prepared sausage dish was brought over. This was absolutely fantastic. The carrots were as Jfood remembered in his Meritage meal, the turnip-potato purée was beautiful and the smoked crabapple jam was divine and flavorful. Amazingly the sausage, which was great, was the weak link in the dish, only because the other flavors were over the top great.

After a short intermission a nice bowl of cassoulet was delivered. Jfood took his time as he savored each and every bite. The beans were perfectly cooked, the meats added different flavors and textures and the chef placed some breadcrumbs atop which added not only another flavor but a crunchiness to offset the smooth textures of the dish. This was one of the best cassoulets that Jfood has ever eaten.

Now back to the failure on the part of management.

Jfood asked to speak with the manager and the server told him she would be right out. She never came out so Jfood wandered over to the open kitchen and asked one of the chefs to please tell the MOD that Jfood needed to leave and wanted to speak with her. She finally came over to Jfood. Here is the conversation

J – I’ve been waiting for five minutes to speak with you
M – I was on the phone taking a reservation
[Jfood's blood pressure rises]
J – You have a customer who is about to have an allergic reaction and taking a reservation is more important?
M – I was on the phone with my husband who is the chef
J – You just told me you were on the phone taking a reservation
M – I had one phone on each ear
[Insert incredulous look]
J – You kitchen had a major screw up
M – They prepared the dish like we did last night. We expect the customer to tell us about all their allergies. We have served people with Celiac disease without any problems
J – I thought it was pretty safe ordering chicken sausage, carrots, potatoes, turnips and crabapples. It was your kitchen that screwed up.
M – We have never poisoned anyone in seven years
J – You just don’t care. I have to go and get some medicine.

Upon his return, the MOD /Owner showed a level of unprofessionalism that is beyond comprehension. She absolutely ignored Jfood. She did not come over to apologize, she did not come over to see if he was OK, she did not come over to see if the food was OK, she completely and totally ignored him. She walked by him as hje sat at the bar numerous times. Unbelieveable.

For this exchange, Jfood will add Heartland to the "Never Return To" list. It is one thing to make a mistake; it is another to act in such a condescending, uncaring and unprofessional manner, to the point of complete and total avoidance. Jfood will speak with his feet and take his money elsewhere. But he will not stoop to her level. The food at Heartland is fantastic, the female server this evening should be commended (she received a sizeable tip) and it is unfortunate that he will not return to enjoy this restaurant.

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  1. Now that was a prompt post deletion.

    Jfood, I'm sorry that you were served the wrong side dish, and that it contained an allergen. From reading past posts, your conscientiousness about checking the menu is well documented.

    I'm truly sorry that the Heartland management offered such a crap response when you brought it up.

    Here's some background, which makes that reaction all the more nonsensical:

    4 Replies
    1. re: KTFoley

      This is a bit disappointing to hear, especially since I so fervently defended Russo on that whole peanut thing. Common sense would dictate going the extra mile w/r/t all things nuts.

      However, you did mention that the server adequately remedied the problem. If the kitchen made an honest mistake, and the server rectified it, was it necessary to immediately speak with the manager? Couldn't she have come by after the meal?

      1. re: kevin47

        Umm. The manager seemed like she was really rude, but I am sorry, I would think that a person with a severe peanut allergy would take the time to look down and see what he was eating! I have never (not-sorry for the double negative) looked down at what was placed in front of me before I have taken a bite! And I don't have an allergy! People make mistakes ALL the time. Sure they were wrong and the restaurant MOD was wrong, but come on, be careful next time!

        1. re: chloe4ever


          Jfood is not off-loading all responsibility, and he absolutely accepts his responsibility for his failure to notice the switch. He is not a virgin in the woods on this one.

          But when brought to the attention of the MOD her reaction should have been, "I'm sorry is there anything I can do?" and not "I am on the phone with a reservation."

          Interesting in that the jfoods had the same discussion about a decline in the service industry over the last few months. So yes, he agrees 100% with your comment "be careful next time."

          BTW - a peanut is not a nut. and many like jfood has a nut allergy but eats peanuts all the time. There are many who are allergic to both. Likewise there are levels of allergies. In jfood's case it is thankfully not life-threatening but he breaks out in hives and looks likes me when i scratch behind the ears. A couple of Benadryl and it usually calms down plus the added side effect of a great night's sleep.

        2. re: kevin47

          Just to give you some information. No one can rectify when an allergen is injested, that needs to be medicated. So the Benadryl rectified the allergan and then the server rectified the dinner event.

          And YES, the manager should know about it immediately. Someone gets up and just leaves. What would you as a manager do? Ignore it? or go speak to the server to see what happened? And according to the manager (who jfood understands also happens to be the wife of the owner) it was the way the line cook thought the dish was to be served that night. So everyone who ordered it would get the wrongly prepared dish.

          And jfood asked to speak with the MOD as he was leaving so it was the end of the meal. It was not until he found and took the Benadryl that jfood decided to return for the meal.

      2. I'm with you on this one JFood. Without the nut allergy issues, I still do not enjoy my time at Heartland. Which is a shame.

        My wife and I were talking the other day when she observed that St. Paul does not have good neighborhood restaurants like she could find in Mpls (Grand Cafe, Alma, etc...). Outposts of fine dining in essentially residential neighborhoods. Heartland was about the only thing that came to mind and still, I'll drive west, across the border when I want fine dining.

        1 Reply
        1. re: JimGrinsfelder

          Jim, why don't you enjoy Heartland? I'm assuming you're saying it's more than just the food.

          And, I know this will sound odd, but I think Meritage totally meets the definition of fine neighborhood dining, in feel, except that the neighborhood is downtown. On evenings and weekends, downtown St. Paul absolutely feels like a neighborhood to me. But, still, it's in St. Paul! So, don't drive West, go to Meritage. And, of course, if you're a fan of Strip Club (which I am not), that's absolutely a fine dining restaurant in a neighborhood. In St. Paul.

          jfood, I'm sorry about the nut situation. I'm so glad you were able to take some Benadryl in time.


        2. For your sake, jfood, I hope a turnover in management happens soon so you can get to go to a place you actually enjoy.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Fibber McGee

            Not to worry, there are plenty of places in the MSP are that jfood loves to go to.

          2. The manager's behavior was absolutely unacceptable and you were right to call her out. You probably scared the shit out of her calling her out like that, surely she's used to passive-aggressive Minnesotans that avoid conflict like it's H1N1. Well done.

            As you've mentioned your allergy often, I have been curious; do you make sure to notify your server of your allergy at the beginning of your meal, or do you presume there are no nut oils/etc in prepared dishes? You've accepted some culpability above, but as long as you're making your allergy known to your server immediately (as we see often when people have this sever a reaction), there shouldn't be any blame to share.

            Additionally, I'll not be eating at Heartland until some culpability/remorse is shared by the manager. Lenny watches boards like this for his name like an egomaniac, so I presume there will be an opportunity.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Foureyes137

              Jfood always informs the server at dessert time, as that is where the hidden nuts usually arrive. In 30 years and hundreds of meals there have been less than a handful of instances where the restaurant used nuts as a garnish and in each case it is pretty easy when noticed. When they are complex dishes, jfood always asks but he felt self in the ordering process here with sausage, starch and veggies. Nut oil has never had enough of the allergan to cause an issue, fortunately. Likewise jfood's is a "huge discomfort" reaction versus a go to the hospital reaction.

              He normally carries Benadryl in his car, but the car was replaced recently and Benadryl was not in the new one (it is now). BTW - Mrs jfood caught the mis-step on jfood's part on the phone, so that was covered. :-))

              If Lenny (jfood assumes that is the owner's name) wants to chat, jfood has no issue walking him through what happened so he can teach his staff how to react to an event like this. Jfood is big on mentoring and voice of the customer, just not going back until that conversation occurs and jfood is more than willing to post any positive results from that conversation, making sure he stays within the guidelines that CH has on not being known by the restaurant.

            2. There are plenty of restaurant managers out there (I have worked with quite a few) that are great at avoidance management. Well, we all know that not every guest experience is great so the ability to remedy bad situations is not optional. All to often, the task of dealing with complaint resolution is left to the waitstaff. Some are very good at it while others are not. Anyone that has the title "manager" should be fully responsible for such duties. JFood's experience at Heartland is a great example of how a manger/owner blew the opportunity to turn a very negative situation into a very positive result. An apology should have been issued, an adjustment to the bill should have been made, and a conversation to win over JFood should have been priority number 1. It always took it as a challenge to have a guest that was upset leave with a smile and become a regular. Not easy, but worth the effort. The only exception would be rude people looking for a free meal. In those cases, I would talk with them but hold the line unless we were blatantly at fault. Shame on that manager for dropping the ball. My guess is that this is her mode of operation and the staff likley has little respect for her.

              7 Replies
              1. re: TonyO

                Jfood - I'm so sorry to hear that your experience at Heartland was less than perfect. My husband and I have dined there many, many times since it opened its doors, and we've never had less than perfect food or service. I am shocked to hear that your conversation with Mega was anything less than 100% professional. She has been the best FOH person on every single occasion that we've dined at Heartland. Our only less-than-perfect experiences were when she was not working!

                As a matter of fact, we happened to dine at Heartland Wine Bar last night, as well, and she made a special point of talking to us about our last visit and about a friend who was with us at that time. I have to believe that something really important was going on, or I truely believe that you would not have had the experience that you did.

                1. re: Math

                  I like to believe the best of people, but have to consider that the issue at hand was allergen ingredients, which has been imbued with all kinds of poitical baggage at Heartland.

                  In your opinion, what might be more important than a customer undergoing an adverse systemic reaction to what he or she has just been served?

                2. re: TonyO

                  I agree with you. A bad situation stays a bad situation only if management allows it. I had an experience in a restaurant, my friend and I were seated then just sat for a good 10 minutes until the hostess noticed us. She was apologetic and sent over another server who was so friendly, cheerful and attentive, we forgot our initial annoyance at the service slip. The waitress treated us like gold! And we got free dessert. We still go there as often as we can because we are assured that if there is an issue, management is eager to fix it.

                  1. re: spellweaver16

                    jfood would have loved to post that when he returned the MOD immediately came over to see if everything was OK and apologize. Didn't happen. As jfood mentioned not only here but to the server, she was the most professional part of the events. Kudos again to her.

                    1. re: jfood

                      It's sad when a place with great food has terrible service :( I'm glad there are other places you like that have good service, though!

                      1. re: jfood

                        We are very careful about nuts because my wife is allergic to them too.

                        In general we trust no one, and make certain to notify wait staff of the allergy, some place are really good, some very poor, we usually make a point to have it listed on our order slip.

                        I can fully empathize with you on your feeling, reason alone for us to never step foot in that establishment, or one overseen by that chef. I don' t tolerate being lied to well either.

                        Thanks for the headsup, came here tonight looking for a nice place to bring the wife, and heartland will never be it.

                    2. re: TonyO

                      Right on TonyO. A manager's number one job is to run a profitable business. Included in that are all the aspects of managerial duties such as organization, communication, and dealing with the non-routine aspects of daily operations. If a customer has a beef with the company/restaurant, the manager should discuss the problem. If the customer purely wants to rant and go, then you have to stand there and take it. If you have the opportunity, a manager's goal should be to rectify the situation. A negative review hurts much more than a positive review could ever fix.

                      No matter what she had going on, this manager should have been attentive to the customer. Period. Those who make excuses for why they don't have time, just aren't willing to find a way to get it done.

                    3. Lenny and Jfood had a good conversation on the events of the evening. Although they agreed to disagreed with certain aspects and how they were handled by all parties, more importantly was that both had a similar desire, (a) assure that people with allergies make the restaurant aware of the allergies and (b) the restaurant has appropriate measures in place in the event an unforeseen accident occurs. To that extent Lenny and Jfood both suggested to each other (almost simultaneously) verbiage that will be included on the Heartland menu that will state "Heartland requests that you please inform your server of any dietary concerns or constraints." Tonight’s menu already includes these words.

                      Jfood hopes that other restaurants will follow suit so food can be enjoyed in a safer environment for all. Lenny also suggested that it might be helpful if people petition the Minnesota State Legislature to revise the State Food Code to include a requirement for expanded allergy awareness training as part of the tri-annual Food Manager Certification course that is currently administered by the Minnesota Department of Health.

                      Jfood will now always make mention of his allergies going forward whenever he eats at a place similar to Heartland in hopes of minimizing, and hopefully eliminating, any mistakes in the kitchen. Jfood also hopes to return to Heartland in the near future but now that he is known he will not post as required by the Chowhound rules.

                      Heartland will now be a safer place and let's try to increase the restaurants that post these words to the wise.

                      Now let's get back to the food.

                      9 Replies
                      1. re: jfood

                        Thank you for this informative and gracious post. I hope that Lenny and Heartland are also addressing the communication and service problems raised by your original post.

                        We love the wine bar and will be back soon and often but want to be sure they are attentive to service issues like this.

                        1. re: karykat

                          Yes. I'm glad that Jfood and Russo had a good conversation regarding allergies.

                          But it seems like the other part of this experience was the lack of good service on the part of the manager (her various excuses I found really irritating, including the one where she said they hadn't poisoned anyone - well, what does that have to do with anything? I mean, if you stab someone to death it's not like you get a free pass cos you haven't ever murdered anyone before- you know?).

                          I don't want to put words into Jfood's mouth but I'd venture to say that if the manager had done her job well, the experience & review would have been quite different. Mistakes are made, that's a given. One can hope that they don't get made, but they do since those are humans over in the kitchen. It's what happens *after* the mistake is what really matters, I think.

                          I dunno, it just occurred to me that maybe the manager was worried about liability (i.e., the prospect of being sued)? And this is why she didn't handle this in the way that many of us would have liked to see- attending to the issue immediately, apologizing, and doing whatever was in her power to rectify the situation, and comping some portion of the meal, etc. since this would have been tantamount to admitting that they were responsible for Jfood's allergic reaction. grrrr, that would piss me off MORE so I think I won't think about it.

                          Anyway, it was good of Lenny to be conscientious enough to meet with Jfood and one wonders if he were there that night whether things had gone differently? I agree with many people that Heartland is a special place.

                          1. re: turtlebella

                            The lack of eye contact was no reason to avoid a guest. The manager's job is to rectify the situation. The guest returned which created an opportunity to do just that. Plain and simple, it was handled poorly. However, the efforts at this point seem sincere and that can not be taken for granted. Hopefully a resolution can be reached and such an incident can be avoided in the future. This is a good example of why restaurant owners/managers should pay attention to these websites. It gives them a chance to give thanks and address issues from both sides of the table. The patrons that post here do so on their own time and dime and deserve a response similar to the one Lenny took the time to post.

                        2. re: jfood

                          I don't want to stray too far afield and into restaurant politics. It's worth noting that Russo was at the fore of a recent dustup regarding food allergies, as a City leader was proposing a number of controversial new ordinances and requirements on restaurants pertaining to allergies.

                          The story is best followed in Russo's own blog in the Star Tribune. You can also read his account of a meeting with the City official where the ideas jfood spelled out were discussed as productive solutions (instead of the costly bureaucratic solutions being proposed).

                          Now, to honor jfood's comment (as well as the site policies), a question about Heartland's menu. Being that it changes often, does anyone know if cassoulet is a regular feature throughout the winter? I could go for a bowl of beany, meaty goodness. And, jfood, was it Red Stag where you had an outstanding cassoulet last year? I remember you posting about a good one and, if I recall, a ho-hum version locally. It was about the same time I had a very good cassoulet at Meritage.

                          1. re: MSPD

                            No, the red stag version was not good.

                            Jfood's Red Stag Cassoulet review from April:

                            The cassoulet arrived with the fries and onion rings. Jfood's first impression was it looked very dry, not the rich creaminess he was looking for. Jfood took a bite of the black-eyed peas and carrots under the breadcrumbs. It was too dry for Jfood and could also use more flavor. The next stop was the sausage. This was very dry (probably homemade) and could have benefitted from a little more fat in its preparation. The duck was very tender but it was too salty for Jfood. And the braised pork was way too fatty for him. This dish could use a little TLC. As you can see this was not a favorite for Jfood.

                            Jfood does not remember a good one and will have to try the Meritage version.

                            1. re: jfood

                              I will say the cassoulet at Red Stag was inconsistent last year (one day I would get a confit duck leg, the next, a grilled chicken thigh...occasionally dry, sometimes made with navy beans, sometimes white beans, and I love pork belly, so it was never too fatty for me), however when it was on, it was terrific; comfortable, unctuous, salty, cockle-warming. At the time we lived a block away, so I ate it weekly...

                              i have heard Meritage has a good rendition, but I have not yet had a chance to try it.

                              1. re: jfood

                                I had my first meal at Heartland tonight and tried the cassoulet. I can't speak to the authenticity of it, but I thought it was amazing. There were different flavors and textures that melded together to make the most incredible and unctuous dish.This dish is decadent - not for those watching their cholestorol or calories. It was glistening in fat, but in the most delicious way, and the beautiful square of pork belly on top was the piece de resistance. I am already thinking of my next opportunity to go back to have the dish again - one of the few times I will appreciate the colder MN weather. I had cassoulet at Vincent as well and at the time thought it was good, but for me the Heartland version is at an entirely different level. The flavors we so beautifully blended into a rich, flavorful spoonful that I savored every bite.

                              2. re: MSPD

                                I think the cassoulet is a pretty regular feature, but not constant. They had it on their menu last March when I was there (and it was delicious then too).

                                1. re: LauraB

                                  Muffuletta has a terrific cassoulet for cheap-- $10 on Wednesday nights (i think it's wednesdays....) Last time I was there was for Brunch and they had cassoulet with eggs. yum.