The look on Mike Brown's face was one every diner hopes to see.
Like all the other Victory 44 employees -- and there are just a handful -- Brown does double duty, working both the kitchen and the dining room. Hustling toward our table, sweat trickling down his face, a sprawling charcuterie platter in his hands, Brown's facial expression, beaming with pride, telegraphed, "Wow, would you get a load of this amazing thing that we just made for you?"
How could you not love that?
Victory 44 would stand out anywhere, but the fact that it's located on the far North Side of Minneapolis, a drop of water on a parched restaurant desert, makes it all that more remarkable. Co-owners Erick Harcey and Jodie Heyerdahl took over the space last spring and implemented a British gastropub format. It was fine while it lasted, but the duo recently rebooted, and let's hope this iteration sticks.
Harcey and Heyerdahl recruited a few Porter & Frye vets, including Brown, James Winberg and Geoff Hausmann. Smart move. Clearly cooking their hearts out, this resourceful and highly collaborative group has quickly pushed Victory 44 beyond its neighborhood-hangout comfort zone without sacrificing its moderate prices and casual aura. I smell a winner.
This crew has a knack for turning clichés on their ear. For example, they know how to do small plates. A modestly sized hunk of glazed pork cheek, gloriously fall-apart tender, was paired with stacked sheets of roasted root vegetables, lasagna-style (minus the pasta) and finished with dabs of chèvre and dill wisps. Other highlights: a pair of juicy, tantalizingly caramelized scallops, and slices of lean, charred-on-the-outside, ruby-red-on-the-inside steak flecked with black salt and served with tender, butter-tossed pappardelle.
Back to that charcuterie. I know, I know, charcuterie is suddenly everywhere, the 2010 version of molten chocolate cake. But it's terrific here, both in its obvious quality and impressive variety. The artfully arranged platter --a steal at $14 -- boasts roughly a half-dozen ever-changing styles (especially noteworthy: a fine pork-sweetbreads terrine, a smooth-as-silk chicken liver pâté and a first-rate head cheese) and lavished with lovingly prepared house-made mustards and fruit condiments.
Deconstructivism -- when a dish's key components are yanked apart and rearranged in unexpected new ways -- is another house specialty. It's another trend that can be overwrought, silly, tedious or a revelation, and at Victory 44 it's the latter, with each iteration retaining the dish's integrity yet managing to be playful and delicious.
Take the restaurant's signature dish, a revisioning of the classic Scotch egg. All the key elements remain: egg, sausage and a crispy fried shell, but in this interpretation the sausage is emulsified, the egg is soft-cooked and seductively runny, the breading is light and airy and the whole shebang is sauced with a blend of sharp Dijon mustard and juice from the house-pickled radishes and cauliflower. Wow. Another impressive turn is the kitchen's clever spin on boring old chicken Cordon Bleu, where the bird is prepared two ways -- sous vide and fried -- and paired with a wonderfully smoky ham steak and finished with a luscious cheese fondue.
Even the larger, more familiar bar standards have panache. The fish and chips are marvelous, as are the bangers and mash, a combination of rustic house-made pork sausages, ultra-creamy mashed potatoes and supple onion gravy. Harcey goes so far as to label his burger "perfect," and for once the self-promotion fits.
Another nice touch, among so many: the never-ending parade of between-course bites, including corn popped in duck fat, a shot glass portion of silky leek soup and a cute "pre-dessert" platter, featuring wonderfully sour yuzu-flavored marshmallows and delicate tuiles dressed with dark chocolate and intensely flavored peanut butter powder. (Harcey and company love their powders, a blend of fats and flavor-neutral tapioca maltodextrin; the results are unexpectedly intense and entertaining pops of tastiness.)
An occasional bit of restraint would go a long way. A decadent slab of foie gras didn't need the additional eggy richness of a zabaglione pool, and delicate agnolotti filled with duck liver pâté only required its crispy fried sage garnish, not an overwhelming swipe of powerfully flavored honey.
The biggest offenders are the enough-already desserts; I counted six disparate elements on a single plate, when three or maybe four would have sufficed. There's more. When Brown presented the tres leches cake, he arrived with a BernzOmatic construction torch tucked under his arm. As he enthusiastically sparked it up and gingerly melted a thin chocolate sheath over the cake, I wasn't sure whether to be amused by the mock-drama of it all or alarmed by the prospect of having a flame powerful enough to melt copper less than a foot from my head.
After making a mental note to mention the affordability of a less intimidating kitchen torch (just $40 at Cooks of Crocus Hill!), I decided to be charmed by the silly spectacle. I suspect you would too, particularly after seeing the isn't-this-cool? look spread across Brown's face.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757
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