I’m not great at remembering birthdays, whether I responded to your email, or where I put my keys, but I do remember the instant I knew our 2014 Restaurateurs of the Year were something special.
It was 2010, and I was enjoying a dish of duck agnolotti at Victory 44, all the while asking myself what duck agnolotti was doing on the menu in a nondescript neighborhood pub. The dish possessed a mysterious sweetness, so I asked the server—who was also one of the chefs (how’s that for a novel setup?)—about the source: Was it honey? Indeed, he replied, his eyes brightening with enthusiasm. But it wasn’t just any honey. He dashed back to the kitchen and returned with a decorative tin, imported from Tasmania, and insisted that my friend and I take a whiff of the rare, golden nectar.
As our chef/server poured kimchi-infused consommé over an artful composition of housemade noodles, quail egg, and date-stuffed pig trotter, it was clear that the staff was obsessed with details as well as pushing boundaries—and perhaps even more notably, not at all snobbish about it. Despite the seriousness of the cooking, the vibe was as unpretentious as a neighborhood burger bar. Between the blaring music, the copious tattoos, and the construction-grade torch our chef/server was carrying around for some unknown reason, you’d have expected the crew in back was replacing a transmission, not making its own charcuterie.
Our final course arrived looking less like dessert than an architectural model: a meringue pedestal topped with chocolate mousse, painterly smears of fruit purées, and tres leches cake topped with a chocolate wafer that our chef/server melted tableside (so that’s why he needed the torch). The dessert was so large that we shared it—along with a bit of camaraderie—with a couple at the neighboring table.
The bill arrived, and I paid for the experience with what felt like relative pocket change. That, actually, was the instant I realized these chefs were destined for greatness. They had done the (nearly) impossible: delivering the luxury and complexity expected from fine dining, in a comfortable environment, at an affordable price.
But that was four years ago. Our Restaurateurs of the Year have come a long way since then. And perhaps more interestingly, the trio has come a long, long, long way since just a few years prior to their Victory 44 tenure. Back then, by their own admission, they were a motley crew of college dropouts who could barely hold down the hot station—and certainly not anyone who would have been pegged to create one of the most successful restaurants in Twin Cities history.