Veteran chef Lenny Russo has six James Beard nominations and a 14-year run at the helm of St. Paul’s Heartland under his belt. But his newest gig as director of food and beverage operations at Wayzata’s ninetwentyfive restaurant focuses much more on authenticity than accolades.
“We have a story to tell. Just like this magazine gives a sense of place, we felt ninetwentyfive should do the same thing,” Russo says. That goal was at the heart of the pivot that took ninetwentyfive offline this summer after less than a year in operation. “We sit on a gigantic, iconic lake. It seemed incongruent to have lobster, halibut and arctic char on the menu,” he says.
The new-and-improved menu is a reflection of Russo doing what he does best: rely heavily on local, seasonal ingredients to create dishes that let the terroir—both literal and figurative—star. He pared down the menu substantially, ruffling a few feathers with regulars and staff, and got to the core of what the brand was trying to achieve. The restaurant anchors Hotel Landing, the first hotel on Lake Minnetonka in decades, meaning most diners are those who either live near—and love—the lake, or came to town for the express purpose of enjoying it. That ethos fit like a glove for Russo’s next course.
“People are coming to visit, to be in the Midwest. So we’re drawing on the bounty that’s here. We have some of the finest ingredients in the world on our doorstep,” Russo says. He’s turning to time-tested French and Italian techniques that bring out the flavors of simple, natural ingredients. He’s deconstructing hometown recipes, elevating them but staying consistent with the area’s particular tastes and culinary history.
Ingredients are painstakingly sourced, with seasonal bounty preserved to extend it into the winter months—just like home cooks did a century ago. “Every great cuisine started with someone’s grandma’s recipes. The prep may be complicated, but we’re keeping the composition simple,” he says.
The same goes for the restaurant itself. “We were a little stuffy,” Russo says. As he retrained the staff, he also brought in more casual uniforms—simple dark shirts and aprons, reinforcing the hard-working vibe that “the food came from a farm, still warm from the ground it grew in.” There’s livelier music, simplified table settings and a streamlined, modern menu showcasing fewer dishes but an extensive wine list.
There aren’t pancakes, but there are flapjacks—with buttermilk or buckwheat—a fitting nod to Paul Bunyan. A crayfish Benedict is made with a duck egg. Ocean seafood has been replaced by lake trout, walleye, crayfish and whitefish. There’s rabbit on the menu, fresh-baked breads and pastries, and house-cured charcuterie. This time of year, heirloom tomatoes and peak-harvested berries slowly give way to apples and root vegetables. Finish a meal with Midwestern artisan cheese, dark chocolate terrine with fresh raspberries and espresso, or a house-made ice cream in an imaginative flavor combo. Every item celebrates a distinct season, a favor provided by the ground beneath us.
“We’re not churning our own butter or mining our own salt—that would be pushing it a bit for us. But we would if we could,” Russo says with a chuckle. “Those of us in the business of feeding people? We relate to our customers in the most fundamental way there is. We give them sustenance. We’re with people when they’re celebrating important moments and honoring important people—and there’s a huge responsibility that comes with that.”
Down the Hall
Part of what makes ninetwentyfive unique is its connection to Hotel Landing and its Nordic-inspired Läka Spa. Formerly, the expansive full menu—all 39 lunch and 44 dinner items—were available in-room at both, meaning logistical nightmares and less-than-optimal flavor for guests. Russo pared the restaurant’s menu down with the reopening, but was even more restrained in selecting healthy menu items clients can order in to enjoy aprés-massage. The hotel’s in-room dining options include the ninetwentyfive burger, free-range chicken salad and the grilled artisan cheese.
Lenny Russo’s Culinary Past
He was born to Italian immigrants in Hoboken, New Jersey, something that forever impacted his perspective on food. “Everything was around the corner. I literally didn’t set foot in a supermarket until I was, like, 10—and I wondered where all the good stuff was,” he says. “What was there, you ate.”
1985: He moved to Minnesota and immediately bought a book on foraging local edibles. He’d write his first provincial, upper-Midwestern menu within a few years, building his career at the Loring and New French Café.
2002: Russo opened the acclaimed Heartland in St. Paul, with a focus on celebrating local artisans and farms. “We wanted to utilize what was here, brag about it, exploit it. We did, and then the local food movement took hold,” he says. “People started calling it ‘farm-to-table’ because, I guess, food’s from a farm and it ends up on your table. We avoided that term for a while. We were ahead of the curve—and then we realized we were the curve. I got to sit with the cool kids for the first time in my life.”
2015: Russo and Native American chef Sean Sherman—author of The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen—represented America at the World Expo in Milan. They exclusively used ingredients common prior to Europeans settling here, illustrating “what America was before Italians showed up and turned it into a spaghetti Western,” says Russo.
2016: Russo released his first cookbook, Heartland: Farm-Forward Dishes from the Great Midwest, a primer on from-scratch, place-based cooking. The eponymous restaurant closed the same year.
2018: Russo and chef de cuisine Daniel Cataldo (formerly of Spoon and Stable) join forces to reinvent a culinary newbie on the iconic shores of Lake Minnetonka. After a short closure to retrain the staff and refresh the menu and décor, ninetwentyfive reopens in Wayzata.
Along the way, he’s been a James Beard finalist six times. Never one to fuss, Russo shrugs off the attention. “I guess that makes me a six-time loser,” he says. Maybe the seventh time’s the charm.