Our expectations for brunch are always high. For the only meal we eat that’s a portmanteau, that seems valid. But too often we get burned with overpriced omelets, bad coffee, and corn-syruped pancakes in a facsimile of the meal described to Marge Simpson by her would-be suitor Jacques: “It’s not quite breakfast, it’s not quite lunch … but you get a slice of cantaloupe at the end.”
In 2013, we expect more. We want thoughtful, flavorful dishes made with quality ingredients, but we don’t want them to be fussy, towering volcanoes of molecular hollandaise art and freeze-dried parsley. We want reasonable prices, yet filling portions. We want great coffee, and, of course, booze. And we want to have all this without it being a four-hour exercise in jaw-clenching, eyelid-twitching patience.
Thankfully, the Twin Cities have been steeped in a kind of brunch renaissance. The proliferation of small, chef-driven neighborhood restaurants has led the charge toward excellent weekend brunches that meet and sometimes exceed our high expectations — think Haute Dish, think The Kenwood, think The Bachelor Farmer. Hovering around the top of this list is the North Minneapolis gastronomic temple to all things porcine, Victory 44.
A neighborhood fixture known for balancing a casual vibe with rustic-yet-refined tasting menus, Victory 44 debuted a new brunch menu in early October, and we sat down to try a few things. It’s worth noting that on a Saturday morning, at the heart of the busy brunch hour, there was no wait. We were immediately seated by our friendly server, and started things off with coffee from the adjoining Victory 44 Coffee Bar & Provisions, which offers third-wave Dogwood excellence in all of its permutations. No “pumpkin spice” lattes here, thank you very much (though we should note that another Heavy Table reporter had a superb pumpkin chai latte this week at Fireroast Cafe).
The French press was prepared with exactitude — the cup highlighted the brightness of the lightly roasted beans while retaining the characteristic richness of the technique. The latte, in a nice bit of theater, was executed tableside by the barista, and skillfully topped with the requisite rosetta flourish.
The new brunch menu is divided into Firsts, Seconds, and Thirds. A three-course meal can be had for $20 per diner. We opted to choose a few items a la carte. All of the Firsts are under $10, and the Seconds hover between $10 and $14. There’s also a nice selection of inexpensive sides. We began with the $8 Brussels sprouts (above). Artfully arranged on one side of a gleaming white bowl was a generous heap of sauteed florets studded with quail eggs and candied walnuts, all atop a shallow pool of tart and sweet coarse-grain mustard sauce. Garnished with feathery wisps of microplaned dehydrated cheese and a sail of thin, crispy Benton’s ham, the dish was a fine way to start: vegetal, sweet, salty, and not overwhelming. The sprouts themselves held that envied balance of tender yet toothsome — a simple dish made great by someone who knows what they’re doing.
Next up from the Seconds menu was the Benedict ($10), the old standby that so often brings us to tears with its mediocrity. Not so here. A sturdy foundation of thick, 9-grain ciabatta toast supported luxurious folds of that profoundly smoky Benton’s ham (famously coveted by Momofuku’s David Chang), two slow-poached eggs, braised cabbage, and a tangy, mustardy hollandaise. On the side, the richness was nicely offset by a thick tangle of sharply dressed arugula. The eggs themselves truly deserve some praise here: carefully slow-poached, the yolks were perfectly unctuous, and they united with the thin, velvety blanket of hollandaise until we couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began.
As the Benedict disappeared, our other selection held on for dear life as our forks went to work: the Malted Waffle ($11). This huge, Belgian-style creation arrived snapped into four wedges, arranged into a Spinal Tap-scaled Stonehenge, and drizzled with a not-cloying caramel. Sugared raisins and candied Marcona almonds perched among the malted edifices, and a dense quenelle of mascarpone brought a creamy unification. The presentation was impressive, but the flavor trumped all: the sweet elements were all held up by the backbone of that deeply malty waffle, crisp on the outside, light and fluffy in the middle.
The thoughtfulness on display at Victory 44 also trickles down to the side dishes — we opted for the Cheddar Hash Browns ($5). Deeply browned and not at all greasy, there was no cheese to be seen. Upon first bite, however, the deep, sharp essence of good cheddar made itself known along with the delightfully chewy potatoes. Truly excellent.
Between bites of the rich Benedict, cheesy hash browns, sweet waffle, and sips of our excellent coffee, we felt like dazed somnambulant dreamers floating through a calorie-induced vision of the perfect brunch. Great food prepared expertly, priced reasonably, and portioned sanely. The service was informative, available, and efficient. We didn’t want it to end, but all things must — although at Victory 44, there was not a slice of cantaloupe to be seen. For that and more, we were thankful. And full.
(Victory 44, 2203 44th Ave N, Minneapolis, 612.588.2228)