Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Victor's on Water in Excelsior
More and more, it seems the “there’s no there, there” description of dining in the suburbs is being challenged. Granted, there are still pockets of chain-heavy, non-quality eating in which people don’t care a lick about the cow before it became a burger, which better be under $6. And yet, there are some truly standout places that seem to know how to cater to their neighborhood while delivering something a bit more. Victor’s on Water is that kind of place.
Now, no one is suggesting that Excelsior is some chain-laden mall pad, what with the cute downtown full of independent shops and eateries, not to mention its own brewery, but there are a few behemoths of unfortunate dining just on the edges that draw metric tons of people. So it feels like a huge win that Victor’s has arrived on the scene and has been pretty packed from the get-go.
Nicely positioned in the center of town, Victor’s replaced the unsightly Ming Wok with a warmly lit, glass-walled eatery that has simple lines and spare stylings. White tablecloths with wine glasses in low light sit in front of the open kitchen where cooks in black coats provide the exciting backdrop. Owners Eric Paulson and Janel Olson spared no expense when it came to noise, preemptively soundproofing the entire ceiling so that when the place is humming, it’s really just humming and not screeching.
Smartly, the owners brought in a ringer, chef Phillip Becht, who has created a menu of interesting Italian dishes. His pedigree with local ingredients and time spent at The Modern Cafe and Birchwood are being put to good use here. First and foremost, the man has a way with vegetables; he makes them sing a different song that had my eyes popping open more than once. A small side dish of diced baby turnips softened with brown butter and topped with a cloud of horseradish cream gave me an actual moment of “wait, these can taste like this?” Same for the roasted winter squash puree with dates, fired poblanos, and dark chocolate. It wasn’t sugary or sweet, just lilting with dusky bits that all formed a unique bite I couldn’t quite place, but couldn’t quite stop chasing either.
And on the sweet end of the meal, parsnip ice cream on a dense carrot cake had my kids shocked and awed.
A squashy cheesecake with fried sage and pepitas was so elegant and reaching. I don’t know if I’ve ever started off a review with sides and desserts, but it bodes well.
Starters were simple and kept their flavors easy. Limousin beef carpaccio was textbook perfect with a generous swath of soft beef. Both bruschettas were good, the one with taleggio and speck was the best version of an elevated cheesy garlic bread, and potted rabbit was not only great to find, but well made.
The pasta section is where some serious action happens. The Bolognese is one example of where the vegetable love comes in. Yes, it’s a meat sauce, but somehow the perfectly diced winter veggies steal the sauce, giving snap and depth to the ultimately comforting dish. Gnocchi with milk-poached chicken played soft delicate pillows against pulled bird and charred kale that all stood together in a hearty mix. Black as night squid ink lumache (ridged and pinched elbows of pasta) cuddled with rock shrimp and slips of charred fennel in a ragu riddled with octopus and bright tomato. Really the only misstep here was the ravioli, which lost all nuance of brown butter and orange rind with an overly heavy-handed slick of sweet saba syrup.
For larger plates, there’s a thin and crisp pan-fried trout over lentils with a dashing touch of maple gastrique, and perfectly pan-seared scallops over celery root puree. Lamb T-bones with butter beans have that fire-kissed char I love. I was so excited to see porchetta on the menu, then deeply saddened when it came. Three thinly sliced medallions, with no porchetta seasoning that I could discern, were cooked to a point of dryness where the edges had started curling in on themselves. Plus, served with braised red cabbage and a dollop of mustard cream, it read more like a schnitzel than porchetta. Hoping for another iteration. Pizzas on the other hand were awesome, thin, and chewy with great bubbles of char on the crust. The Achin’ and Begs did right by the slab bacon with creamy fontina and a runny egg. I can see myself at the small bar often with a plate-sized pizza in front of me.
Put Victor’s on your short list, especially if you are a Westie who loves great food. By the ingredients on this menu, you can tell it will flow with the seasons; and with Becht’s nimble touch with vegetables, I’m quite excited for the coming bounty.
205 Water St., Excelsior, 952-474-8879, victorsonwaterstreet.com