Taste of the Country, On an Urban Table: Lenny Russo and Daniel Cataldo of ninetwentyfive

Lenny Russo, left, and Daniel Cataldo of ninetwentyfive // Photo by Wing Ta

Lenny Russo, left, and Daniel Cataldo of ninetwentyfive // Photo by Wing Ta

If you’re going to tell the story of food in the Upper Midwest, it’s helpful to think of a circle. People here were once intimately interconnected with the land and seasons as farmers, hunters, and fishers, and every ingredient had a story about where it was from and when it was harvested that was intimately known to the people who ate it. Hundreds of years later and about 180 degrees further around the circle, massive food corporations were manufacturing and distributing packaged food that could stay “fresh” for weeks or even years, while upscale restaurants measured the sex appeal of their food by how far it had traveled from France, or Italy, or Asia to reach the diner’s table. 

Rotate another, say, 90 degrees, to present day. Manufactured and artificially preserved food still abounds, but there’s been a return to looking at where we live as a source of great food—the forests, the orchards, and the animals of nearby lakes and fields are what some of the most creative chefs are tapping into as they build their menus.

That’s certainly the backstory of the bill of fare at the restaurant ninetwentyfive at the boutique Hotel Landing in Wayzata. It isn’t merely a list of food available for purchase and consumption. It’s a chronicle of the seasons; it’s a guide to wild foraged food; it’s an atlas of the Upper Midwest. Each menu comes out on a massive board, includes the wine and cocktail list, and seems to occupy about a quarter of the table. Reflected in its sprawling expanse is the thoughtful work of a culinary team led by longtime local foods champion Lenny Russo. 

A trove of the ingrediants Russo and Cataldano use at ninetwentyfive // Photo by Wing Ta

A trove of the ingredients Lenny Russo and Daniel Cataldo currently use at ninetwentyfive // Photo by Wing Ta

When Russo and chef de cuisine Daniel Cataldo build the menu at ninetwentyfive, they do it by tacking and weaving with the changing weather and ever-shifting availability of the best plants and animals. In other words, they let the ingredients lead the way.

“We’re sitting on top of some of the best ingredients in the world, and that’s the foundation for great food,” says Russo. We’re talking to him not at his restaurant, but at the Osceola, Wisconsin, farm of one his suppliers, Andy Peterson of Peterson Craftsman Meats. Fifty yards over his shoulder, wandering a green field ringed by a thin strand of electric fencing, are a herd of mostly mahogany-colored cows and steers, imposing in their size and sheer bovine handsomeness. Just to his left, on a gas grill, thick T-bone steaks sizzle away, waiting for the opportunity to bathe in a rich cream-and-sherry forest-mushroom sauce created on site by Cataldo. Not too long ago, those steaks were wandering, in cow form, in that same field. Now, as we talk about foodways and the meaning of provincial dining, they’re lunch.

“We try to buy the best that we can—we’re pretty meticulous in the way we source, as you can see by what we’re doing at the farm today,” says Russo. “And we try to get out of [the ingredients’] way, as much as we can.”

Russo talks about the quality of Peterson’s beef, about the local lake fish he sources from Native American tribes, and the produce that comes in from places like DragSmith Farms, Deer Creek Farm, Footjoy Farm, and Twin Cities Organics. “There’s nothing like having produce delivered that’s still warm from the earth, and then shaking the hand of the farmer who grew it,” says Russo. “It doesn’t get any better than that. And we’re using a lot of heirloom crop that wasn’t hybridized to stay on the grocery shelf for three months and look perfect. It didn’t travel 10,000 miles before it gets to you. The closer you can get to the source, the higher the quality, the better the flavor, and the higher the nutritional value.”

In that respect, Russo’s work at ninetwentyfive is a direct throughline with his career at Heartland, the St. Paul restaurant he opened in 2002 and led to national prominence before its closure in 2016. Ninetwentyfive pulses with its connections to a wide and growing network of suppliers scattered across the green and rolling Upper Midwestern landscape. Luxury accommodations in resort towns typically pull their ingredients in from around the world to ring all the high-status bells they can find—Wagyu from Japan, for example, or lobsters from Maine. But the ninetwentyfive menu is structured around the taste of the surrounding fertile agricultural community and brings it, with love, to the tables of its diners.

A variety of the mushrooms foraged for Lenny Russo and Daniel Cataldo's restaurant, ninetwentyfive // Photo by Wing Ta

A variety of the mushrooms foraged for Lenny Russo and Daniel Cataldo’s restaurant, ninetwentyfive // Photo by Wing Ta

On a more intimate level, the restaurant also brings in wild foods. “I remember working at restaurants when I was a lot younger and these foragers would come in—and I didn’t know a lot about it back then—and they’d be these interesting characters,” says Cataldo. “And I’d ask: ‘Who are these guys we’re giving money to for these mushrooms?’”

Cataldo learned more about wild foods and soon found himself in northern Wisconsin on vacation. “I’m walking through the woods,” he recalls, “and I’m hiking, letting the kitchen life in the city fade away from me […] and I start seeing these mushrooms on the ground and it dawned on me: ‘I know what these are! I work with these all the time!’ And they were these chanterelles and these yellowfoots—and trumpets! It was all at once, all this different stuff. […] I still get goosebumps thinking about that.” He holds his arms out, and sure enough—the reaction is visceral, it’s physical.

The flip side of strolling through the woods in search of mushrooms is working the phone and connecting with purveyors. Touching base with people like Peterson is key to Cataldo’s job: “I have questions for him all the time, especially when we’re going to change the menu and we’re dialing things in. He knows more about the product than I do, and that’s a huge thing [about the job]—being able to learn.”

Peterson says that kind of feedback—questions and comments from people in the field, like Cataldo—is key to what he does. “We won’t know how a carcass is going to break open until we break it open,” says Peterson. “At that point, the animal’s already been harvested and we can’t go back and change anything. But what we can do is change the genetic component of the next breeding cycle.” That change, says Peterson, is slow—less like a nimble sailboat and more like a barge. It takes time to change the characteristics of a living product, “but you need feedback from customers and chefs in order to do that. And we’re doing that now for two years from now.”

Andy Peterson of Peterson Craftsman Meats talks with Daniel Cataldo and Lenny Russo on his farm in Osceola, Wisconsin // Photo by Wing Ta

Andy Peterson of Peterson Craftsman Meats talks with Daniel Cataldo and Lenny Russo on his farm in Osceola, Wisconsin // Photo by Wing Ta

The result of that sort of communication is a dish like the T-bone steak dressed with sauce forestiere that sat before us on a folding table in a big white barn. The meat (which had been bred, fabricated, and packaged with care as the result of customer feedback) is modestly charred and cooked uniformly and perfectly, an even medium to medium rare throughout despite the imposing bulk of the cut. Sherry dominates the sauce and its tangy punch ties together the toothsome, gently earthy mushrooms with the tender, meaty fullness of the steak’s char and umami.

The steak itself seems simple, but the meat is the product of four generations of learning and care that Peterson taps into as he raises his animals. And whereas the sauce seems like the height of sophistication, it really revolves around good old-fashioned butter, cream, garlic, and mushrooms—simple ingredients used with care and thought: the best way to produce a big result and reflect the taste of a region on a plate. 

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Recipe for Daniel Cataldo’s Steak Forestiere

Daniel Cataldo's Steak Forestiere // Photo by Wing Ta

Daniel Cataldo’s Steak Forestiere // Photo by Wing Ta

Serves 2–4

Ingredients

Two 24-ounce T-bone or porterhouse steaks
Grapeseed or vegetable oil
¼ pound mix of wild mushrooms: maitake,
shiitake, porcini, oyster, beech, etc.
¼ pound butter (high fat if available)
1 tablespoon shallots, minced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon nutmeg, freshly ground
6 ounces heavy cream
4 ounces dry sherry
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
½ teaspoon porcini powder
Espelette pepper (or paprika, if not available) 
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste

Steaks

Allow your steaks to come to room temperature and then set your grill to high heat. Brush the steaks with oil and season with sea salt and pepper. Place your steaks on the grill with the strip side of the steak toward the hotter side and the tenderloin toward the cooler side. Sear for 3–4 minutes. Flip the steaks and continue grilling for 3 minutes. Reduce heat and grill for an additional 5–7 minutes (for medium rare, aim for 135–140°F). Allow steaks to rest while you prepare the sauce.

Sauce Forestiere

Dry sherry wine is added to the sauce mix as a deglazer // Photo by Wing Ta

Dry sherry wine is added to the sauce mix as a deglazer // Photo by Wing Ta

Melt butter in a non-reactive pan. Saute garlic, shallots, mixed mushrooms, and a pinch of salt for one minute. Add nutmeg and porcini powder, then deglaze with dry sherry wine. Add heavy cream and reduce, adding salt and pepper to taste. Finish with sherry vinegar and espelette pepper (or paprika), stir, and serve over the steak.


Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here

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