Ordinarily if I saw a chef barreling toward me with a blowtorch, I’d throw a chair through a window and run for my life. But at Victory 44, the north Minneapolis gastropub, I was delighted. The chef set the plate of tres leches cake down, and explained that the torch was to melt a thin sheet of chocolate over the cake. As the flames flickered they also burnt tiny flecks of orange zest strategically scattered near the edges of the chocolate, which, when vaporized, released a potent puff of burnt-orange perfume.
“Nice,” I murmured.
The chocolate sheet was merely the pretext, the burnt orange the true culinary point. The chef heard my compliment, inquired as to whether we wanted any coffee, and then hustled back to the kitchen, suppressing a smile.
There are so many happy little moments like this now at Victory 44. The restaurant, which was opened last winter by Erick Harcey, who also owns the Kitchen in Stillwater, implemented a radical solution in early January to its mounting twin problems of ever-upward-inching prices and not enough wow on the plates: He let go the whole team of servers and cooks and replaced them with the barest skeleton crew of ambitious and accomplished young cooks—James Winberg, Mike Brown, and Jeff Houseman cook as well as Harcey—dishwashers, and an intern. Now those cooks come in during the morning and cook, cook, cook—and when you walk in the door, one of them breaks away from the stove to seat you and pull your beer.
Because they’ve knocked out a good half of the traditional labor costs of a restaurant (there are no managers, or bar-tenders, either), prices are shockingly low for what you get. A $14 charcuterie plate, for instance, is sized to feed four, and contains a half-dozen incredibly difficult and delicious elements, including a springy, tender pâté fashioned from poached sweetbreads and pistachios, a quivering but crisp and roasty gelatinous square of lovingly deboned pig trotter, frothy duck liver pâté, and house-made mostarda. A beet salad was made with golden beets so carefully cut into perfect tiles and so prettily arranged on the plate with orange segments and a confetti of chive sprinkles that it reminded me instantly of one of the lovely and fussy plates from dear departed Goodfellows—but at a third of the price. And it was delivered by the very guy who peeled the beets. Amuses, those one-bite bits of chef’s whimsy, are run to the tables with bashful pride: “This is some bacon-date relish with a little sunchoke chip and a dusting of bacon powder,” a chef will announce, placing the complimentary little treat before you before dashing back to the kitchen.
This place does lack some traditional grace notes: The wine list is spare and plain, though the food goes better with beer anyway. And if you would be offended by a restaurant with a server who confesses, “You have to keep your fork, we’re just out of clean ones right now,” give this one a miss. However, if you like the idea of a neighborhood tavern functioning as a giant chef’s table, you may find this one of the most delightful restaurants of the year. I did. It’s also the only in town in which, if I saw a chef run from the kitchen with a knife, I’d assume something very good was about to happen.
2203 44th Ave. N., Mpls.
Open Mon.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–10 p.m.