Excelsior Gets Saucy

by | Jun 2018

Red Sauce Rebellion

Photo: Emily J. Davis

Red Sauce Rebellion brings a streamlined, flavorful experience to the former site of Victor’s on Water, steps from the owners’ original Coalition, in the heart of Excelsior.

Instagrammers rejoice! Deacon Eells and Eli Wollenzien launched a new dining concept—at the site of Victor’s on Water—in the heart of Excelsior last Christmas.

Just steps from their original Coalition, Red Sauce Rebellion is a streamlined, bright space where natural light floods in from the huge windows flanking iconic Water Street. It makes use of the space’s good bones and location, with white dishes, natural wood and stainless steel, offset by pops of teal, red barn-style pendant lights, exposed brick with rich patina, leopard and marble. Napkins are white linen with simple red stripes. Water is served in clear PIY (pour it yourself) carafes. The space is at once a little retro and a little modern, too—like it was made to help social media-savvy visitors set up the perfect flat lay photo of a meal.

It echoes what the Coalition brand does best—serve up fresh, local ingredients in a familiar way—but with an imaginative enough flare to bring an all-new player to downtown Excelsior (promising concept Victor’s was surprisingly short-lived in the covetable spot).

When Eells and Wollenzien were approached by the owners of Victor’s about taking over the space, they knew they had to jump at the opportunity, even though they were busy opening up the second Coalition location at Edina’s 50th and France. The reason? If not to stake a claim in booming downtown Excelsior’s foodie scene (they had already done that), then to bring a more casual, family-oriented Italian restaurant to the community.

“We struck a deal, then moved on it,” says Eells, simply. They made a departure from the higher-class look and feel of Victor’s (perhaps something that hastened the eatery’s end, they say) and even a little bit of Coalition’s. The servers are dressed in t-shirts and aprons instead of starchy collars or all black. There aren’t tablecloths. It’s approachable. Affordable. Still lakeside dining, but a touch more sailboat than yacht.

The space intentionally “feels a little more casual,” adds Eells. In the summertime, he says, the vibe in town is totally different—more laid-back, coastal—and that’s when there are more people downtown. “So here, you can have a nice dinner or come in right off the boat. It’s middle-of-the-road, familiar yet classy. Warm and upscale. Lively, but warm and comfortable.”

Created with the eclectic downtown Excelsior crowd in mind, the Red Sauce Rebellion space and menu were also designed to strike a balance the team thought was puzzlingly absent from Italian-American restaurants on the whole.

“Eli and I both grew up eating at ‘white sauce, red sauce’ Italian restaurants,” says Eels. “They’ve gone away now, and there’s only super upscale Italian now, with squid ink on the menu. We thought, ‘Why can’t you create something based around simple flavors, but keep things upscale and delicious?’” The playful spot is getting at what Italian home cooking has always been: fresh, simple ingredients done right and meant to be enjoyed in the company of loved ones. With that in mind, head chef Brenton Reynolds created a streamlined menu that still covers all the bases well, and the restaurant group’s resident cocktail program expert Andrew Robertson designed a signature drink lineup to match.

Give it a Taste

There’s no getting overwhelmed by the menu. One-page lunch and dinner menus are simple and modern, with food on one side and drinks on the other. Here “red sauce” and “white sauce” double as code words for two sides of the wine menu. For lunch, hearty Italian-inspired sandwiches stand in for entrees like dinner’s stars of short rib—balsamic braised, with caramelized root vegetables and pickled onions—or chicken parmesan.

General manager Amy Buchstaber has had a front-row seat to the town’s reaction to their saucy new dining option. She says there are a few dishes that took off in popularity right away, like the charred oysters.

“The have this garlicky, smoked flavor from the grill,” says Buchstaber. They’re drizzled with garlic butter, parmesan and parsley and served with baguette, making them a hearty small plate to enjoy with drinks—or a great lead-in to a full meal. “We’ve had nothing but great feedback on those,” adds Eells.

A goat cheese tart, Italian fry bread, and fritto misto—that’s fried shrimp with giardiniera (pickled vegetables)—make for flavorful appetizers. Or choose from a number of fresh soups and salads.

The pizzas? “They’re incredible, delectable,” says Buchstaber. They’re not what most people expect: seriously deep-dish, and the ingredients are piled atop a signature cast iron-made, biscuit-like crust. Rebel Pie, aptly named, comes a number of ways. Fennel sausage stars in the signature red sauce, plus scallions, pink peppercorns and mozzarella. Supreme has the kitchen sink of Italian ingredients: pepperoni and sausage, with castelvetrano olives, peppers and wild mushroom. Mushroom sticks to a béchamel cream sauce, caramelized onion, mozzarella and smoky bacon to pull it all together and give it depth. The meatball version doesn’t overthink things. There’s red sauce. Meatballs made in-house. Mozzarella and basil. Done.

Eells and Buchstaber agree on the star pasta. “Trofie pasta,” they say. It’s vodka cream sauce, plus fennel sausage and sweet peas tossed with fresh herbs, and it comes across like a risotto. You can also choose from traditional dishes like pappardelle, baked ziti, fettuccine or spaghetti.

“I adore the goat cheese tart as an app. I also love the spicy linguine. There’s a kick to it, with a nice, light sauce. Lasagna is a classic; people adore it,” says Buchstaber. To round out a meal, choose from the list of eight specialty cocktails, wines, vermouth, or grappa, as well as local tap beers.

The Sparkling Pear is Domain Canton, Gray Goose La Poire and bubbles. “It’s really different—just bubbles, liquor, and lemon. It’s not overly sweet, but nice,” says Buchstaber. The Rebellini is a twist on the Bellini with peach and egg white foam. It’s stunning in and of itself. But the Bevuto Viola gin sour with red wine? Yum.

The RSR Manhattan is slightly less showy, with rye whisky, sweet vermouth, cherry vanilla bark and Blackstrap bitters—plus a cherry on a skewer, of course. But whether you’re leaning toward the spaghetti end of the menu or more toward short ribs, toward water or vermouth, one thing is clear at Red Sauce Rebellion—you’re welcome. Guests of all ages have been pleasantly surprised by the easy nature of the place.

“We knew from the beginning that RSR would become more family-friendly—but it’s become a huge part of the brand,” says Buchstaber, who says the experience has continued to evolve as her team has worked its way through the first seasons as the new kids in town. They opened in December and have already debuted an event venue in the basement. Now, as they ease into warmer months, they’re thinking about a more robust seafood program with a “fish cart,” says Eells. And as the town collectively flings the doors open to make the most of summer’s lake breezes, look for a new patio—with a dedicated social hour food and drinks menu—to be added soon. It’s Excelsior, after all. And this is lake country.


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