When Sauced opened in the spring of last year, it was the first restaurant to bring any sort of culinary chic to Minneapolis's North Side. Its offerings weren't fancy—no foie gras or top-shelf tequila—but were certainly more adventurous than those at the area's ubiquitous greasy spoons and chain restaurants. But after Sauced closed, less than a year after its launch, North Siders were again forced to venture downtown or across the city if they were craving the gourmet burgers and scallop risottos easily accessible to those in other neighborhoods.
I don't think that Sauced's casually ambitious approach was to blame for its demise. And neither do the owners of Sauced's replacement, Victory 44, which follows a similar gastropub-style concept. On the surface, in fact, so little has changed that without the new name on the sign outside, diners might not realize they're in a different restaurant.
The space looks essentially the same, with its putty-colored walls and open kitchen, its bar area filled with high tables, and its dining room lined with black banquettes. (The raised patio is still there, too. And outdoor diners seated nearest the windows should be aware that they're offering those on the other side of the glass a rather up-close-and-personal view of their posteriors.) Victory has also retained Sauced's friendly, laid-back vibe: Servers display the same youthful exuberance; cooks wear baseball caps. And the menu still feels interesting yet approachable. None of Victory's foodie-focused bar snacks, sandwiches, and under-$20 entrées are likely to tip off the change.
Victory's co-owners, Erick Harcey and Ben Hiza, both have fine-dining backgrounds. They met while working at the Nicollet Island Inn, as the chef and general manager, respectively. When they left the Inn, they intended to launch a pork-and-whiskey-focused restaurant in Northeast called Gastronome. But after reassessing the economic climate, they decided to put that restaurant's build-out on hold and focus on the turnkey space vacated by Sauced. (Harcey and Hiza may be the Warren Buffetts of the Twin Cities dining scene, unafraid to invest when others are fearful, as they've also just opened a second restaurant, the Kitchen, in the former Stone's space in Stillwater.) Within a couple of weeks, they'd cleaned the old Sauced space and undertaken a budget-friendly renovation—"We hung four mirrors up and maybe two beer signs," Harcey says—and installed Harcey's former sous chef at Nicollet, Ryan Stechschulte, to head the kitchen. On the night Victory 44 opened, neighbors lined up outside the door.
Harcey and Hiza, described on the Victory website as "two of the most innovative and forward-thinking restaurateurs in Minneapolis," aren't shy about projecting their confidence—so of course the first thing I had to order was the "Perfect Burger." The title may be a tad hyperbolic, but it is certainly among the best burgers in town. Tucked into a Turtle Bread bun, the ground beef is topped with bacon, sharp cheddar, and sweet icebox pickles made with Harcey's mom's recipe. But its most outstanding characteristic is juiciness: The patty oozed so much liquid that by the time I finished I had a small puddle on my plate, which I eagerly sopped up with my last bite of burger. What makes it so irresistible? The ground beef is enriched with flecks of frozen butter, then pattied and cured, confit-like, for a day, coated with salts and spices. The technique causes the exterior to take on a nice, caramelized sear, while the inside stays moist and buttery.
Victory's Reuben is also nearly flawless, having been pampered and coddled at every stage of its production. (At first mention of the sandwich, Harcey remarked, "That's our baby.") Harcey says he hates thin-shaved corned beef, and I see his point: The meat can get dry and flake to the point of crumbliness. In Victory's version, large hunks of house-cured meat fall apart along their fibrous fault lines—though it may seem like semantics, the hunks do make for a heartier, moister bite. Melted Gruyere binds the corned beef with mellow sauerkraut and sweet pickle relish, showcasing the joys of fermented foods.
During dinner service, meals begin with a complimentary bowl of potato chips and herb-flecked crème fraîche, a house-made homage to the local tradition of pairing Old Dutch chips with Old Home dip. The snack incurs customer goodwill while buying the kitchen a few extra minutes: When paired with a Schlitz, the chips may be capable of halting time completely.
British bar fare pops up across Victory's menu, from the Devils on Horseback (bacon-wrapped dates) to Scotch eggs—with their crackling Parmesan/bread-crumb shell and creamy yolk, they're the closest thing to a Fabergé that a commoner could hope to encounter. Stechschulte and his crew have a deft touch with the fish and chips, keeping the haddock's batter-fried exterior delicate and shatteringly crisp. The fillets are salted before cooking, and the seltzer-carbonated batter is kept ice-cold, to prevent the fish from getting soggy. The salt-flecked, pencil-thick French fries are good enough to eat without ketchup—a good thing for purists who may choose to eschew the house blend, which is doctored with dates, plums, vinegar, and spices to taste something like a cross between barbecue and cocktail sauces.
Healthy eaters will find themselves at odds with much of what comes out of Victory's kitchen, though not the wonderful scrum of baby salad greens, apples, candied walnuts, and cheddar cheese doused with lemon vinaigrette. The other light dishes are less remarkable, though the half-chicken with beets is a better choice than the fish boil, whose muddy, tomato-based broth had an odd, lemon-peel bitterness.
Desserts at Victory are worth the splurge. The ones I tried so exceeded my expectations that I wondered if Harcey was employing a pastry chef. Turns out Harcey was a pâtissier in a "previous life" at both the Interlachen Country Club and the Sofitel. The red-wine gelée and Banoffee tart that I tried could do much to elevate the bad reputation Brits have for their sweets, founded on the likes of mince pie and spotted dick. The gelée is a sophisticated take on the college students' Jell-O shot, a jiggling dome of sweetened red wine whose tart tannins are balanced by mint and crème fraîche. The Banoffee tart layers banana, toffee (in this case, the word is used to mean dulce de leche), espresso mousse, and crunchy chocolate pearls into a pastry crust. The delicious bliss is light-years better than any banana split.
Overall, Victory is a restaurant well worth championing. (It also deserves honors for eliciting what is, admittedly, the most ridiculous complaint this critic has waged against a restaurant: On several occasions I received a three-tined fork—a thork?—with which to attack my meal, which seemed rather caveman-like.) As the menu evolves, I hope the kitchen might consider refining it with a bit more seasonal balance. Harcey's one-pot porkstravaganza, the Victory 44, for example, stews ham hock, ribs, sausage, and pork belly in a rich, salty bacon jus, all topped with a jalapeño-lemon garnish. It was quite tasty, but the nearly obscene amount of squishy belly fat might play more into Harcey's tastes—"I love pork more than the next guy," he admits—than those of the neighborhood. Reprise it in the dead of winter, though, and I'm sure I'll reconsider.