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Straight From the Heartland : Regional cooking: Midwestern cuisine is coming into its own again.

October 04, 1990|NANCY WALL HOPKINS | Hopkins writes for Midwest Living magazine.

You've heard of California cuisine and Southwest cooking. Now there is the Heartland cuisine of the Midwest. and it's not all corn on the cob. Here's a guide to some of the restaurants that are serving it.

PRAIRIE, CHICAGO

Stephen Langlois is probably the most well known and creative chef working the Heartland angle. He's the kind of chef who takes staples, such as corn chowder and revives them--in the case of the chowder, with tarragon leaves and paprika bacon. His menu includes walleye pike stuffed with vegetables and wild rice and served with a four-parsley sauce. Honey-mustard chicken comes with Amish potato salad. And baby Coho salmon is cooked with bacon, leeks and black walnuts. He adds seasonal dishes such as an herb-roasted rack of Wisconsin lamb with rosemary-mint juices, or Iowa pheasant with apples, chestnuts and cranberries. For dessert, there are improbable-sounding dishes such as sweet-potato-praline cheesecake.

Prairie, Omni Morton Hotel, 500 S. Dearborn St., Chicago. (312) 663-1143. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Dinner for two, food only, $40 to $60.

FAEGRE'S, MINNEAPOLIS

Since Lenny Russo left the balmy bay of St. Augustine, Fla., five years ago, he has worked throughout the Twin Cities area, refining his definition of the new Heartland cuisine.

His menus rely heavily on the foods of the Midwest--wild game, freshwater fish, organic produce, wild mushrooms, wild flowers, berries, plums and nuts. But Russo says he respects not only the quality of the local ingredients but also local traditions. "I talk to the people about how they prepare things, then I adapt that," he says. "What I fix is really a country cuisine made with a little more sophistication."

One example: persimmons that grow all over Iowa show up in a creamy, tart pudding spiked with sweet sun-dried blueberries.

Faegre's Bar and Restaurant, 430 1st Ave. N., Minneapolis. (612) 332-3515. Lunch Monday throuhg Friday, dinner seven nights. Reservations recommended. Dinner for two, food only, $28 to $50.

PETER'S, INDIANAPOLIS

Owner Peter George and chef Tony Hanslits have been together at Peter's, a few blocks southeast of Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis, since its opening in November, 1985. And they make sure only food "made in the Heartland" reaches the table. Maine lobster here? Louisiana redfish? Not a chance.

The usual Indiana boyhood adventures--hunting for morels in the woods and fishing for perch on Lake Michigan's southern shore--prepared George and Hanslits for their roles as true Midwest restaurateurs.

Crisp Indiana duckling or roast Heartland pork with fig butter defined the twosome's idea of Midwest cuisine. "The pork with fig butter is one of those quirky dishes for which we took something we grew up with and created something new," explains George. "What kid didn't eat Fig Newtons?"

Peter's desserts remind you of what Grandma used to bake, only with a sophisticated twist. S'mores, for instance, are made with fresh-baked Graham crackers and homemade marshmallows topped with premium chocolate and a strawberry sauce.

Peter's, 936 Virginia Ave., Indianapolis, Ind. (317) 637-9333. Dinner Monday-Saturday. Dinner for two, food only, $22-$60.

L'ETOILE, MADISON, WIS.

L'Etoile owner Karen Odessa Piper creates her menus as she shops at Capitol Square Farmers Market. Into her basket go freshwater snails from northern Wisconsin, local mushrooms, oysters from Westcott Bay and Door County cherries. Later, she'll pick up a case of Wollersheim Domaine Reserve wine, made in an old stone winery on the banks of the Wisconsin River.

"Our customers get to taste the most flavorful foods--free-range ducks and chickens, tart goat cheeses and even edible flowers," says Piper.

The restaurant's second-story dining room offers an impressive view of the capitol dome. On the menu: Lake Superior trout, sauced in cranberry butter and crowned with golden whitefish caviar. The hearty beef tenderloin comes with a pan sauce made with bock beer from nearby Capitol Brewery Co.

L'Etoile, 25 N. Pinckney St., Madison, Wis. (608) 251-0500. Lunch Tuesday-Friday; dinner Monday-Saturday. Dinner for two, food only, $24-$50.

SEASON'S BEST, IOWA CITY

The motto at Season's Best: "Something special always is in season." The menu is genuine Iowana. The grilled Iowa ham, served with maple glaze, is cured just up the road in Dyersville. Murph's Midwest meat loaf comes stuffed with shaved ham, Swiss cheese and spinach. Fresh plum pie with crumb topping is served with ice cream from Iowa's renowned Great Midwestern Ice Cream Co.

Season's Best, owned by Kathy Jones, reflects the Hawkeye States in nearly every way. Iowa gardens grow the herbs and vegetables. Iowa feedlots supply the meat. Iowa woodlots even provide the light oak that dresses the restaurant's bright and contemporary-style interior.

Season's Best, 325 E. Washington St., Iowa City, Iowa (319) 337-2378. Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday; brunch Sunday. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$40.

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