Remember the heady days of 2010, when that young, rowdy band of molecular gastronomy–enchanted chefs took over a former greasy spoon in Robbinsdale and splashed Minnesota across the map as a Gen-Y dining superstar? Bon Appétit magazine called Travail one of the best new restaurants in the whole country, and people lined up down the block! (There are going to be a lot of exclamation points here. If I could, I’d stick in emojis, those little bubble faces for texting, because that would be very Gen-Y of me!)
The emoji I would use to convey the last year for the Travail crew: happy/tired. What a year it was! The young chef-owners—Mike Brown, James Winberg, and Bob Gerken—and young chef-workers—nigh innumerable—launched one of the most successful Kickstarter restaurant campaigns in the history of the world, raising $255,669 from probably a good deal of you, dear readers. It was also a year in which they opened the avant-garde pizza spot Pig Ate My Pizza, opened and closed the dim sum spot Umami, and built (often with their own hands) a brand-new space a few doors down from their old space to hold what they insist are two restaurants: Travail, the fine dining one with tasting menus only, which is in the front of the big, open box restaurant, and the more casual Rookery with à la carte options toward the back of the box. (The emoji I use to represent my critical opinion on whether there are in fact two restaurants: not buying it/apology shrug. I say the two are quite obviously just one restaurant, as they share one door, one cash register, one bathroom, one style of cooking, one cocktail and wine list—you decide for yourself.)
So, big question: Was it worth it for you all to spend a quarter of a million dollars, while the Travail gang spent many times that, to open this new big box that may or may not be two restaurants?
When the Ron Burgundy comes to the table, the answer is happy-face fist pump, yeah, yeah, yeah! It’s a cocktail, but not just a cocktail. It’s an hourglass flagon of bourbon flavored with cherry, the top of the hourglass filled by a reverse siphon until it’s thick and white with apple pipe smoke, the cloud contained by a fat cork. A cook empties the flagon into your glass at your table, and then whoosh, the burgundy liquid decants and the smoke becomes a movie special effect, eddying, streaming, turning the tabletop into a sort of magician’s finale. You raise your glass to your lips and it’s smoky and sweet, actually ultra-smoky, like a bonfire of dry leaves in the fall, whisked into bourbon. It claws and whispers; it moves smoke into every neuron in your whole darn head. You drink and are momentarily one with the phantasm of spent fire. Fun!
The Hypercolor Kool-Aid is even crazier. You start with a plain orange drink of gin and sunshine-colored yuzu. A mysterious packet is presented, torn open, and poured into your drink in a winking, illicit way. A powder floats into the glass, turning it crimson, rendering the drink sweet, tart, tasty as a lemon drop, but much more fragrant and riveting.
Which is to say nothing of the cocktail with a blown-sugar spire like a little sparkly wand, or the one poured on the sorbet island, or the one where they dump liquid nitrogen right in the bottom of the glass for some reason. Merely in terms of a diverting and delightful new place for cocktails, I am happy you spent your quarter-million bucks that way! Emoji: raise-a-glass happy.
Here’s how the new place works: You go in the one big door to the front, which the owners insist is one restaurant called Travail, where you eat very ambitious tasting menus on tables hewn of some sturdy boards the chefs salvaged sometime along the way. As of press time these tasting menus cost you $110 for two—do not show up with a party of three, or five, or they will ask you to buy dinner for two, four, or six, which gets expensive or awkward. For your dough you get that good molecular grub the way they do it at Travail, now amped up to another level by fancy and expensive kitchen equipment. Like beets turned into chicharron paper perching over a smallish terrarium filled with various chips, mounds, foams, dewlaps, tear heaps, cube scatters, torn leaves, and tender promises. Overhead, the speakers pound with the Beastie Boys at ultimate ultra ultra volume! Emoji: hands over ears.
But the new Travail food! Like some Calder meets Kandinsky battle to become pure color: a flower of beef on a multi-hued lagoon of brown held fast by a gyrating slink of piped golden puree containing herb oils light and dark, which themselves hold dots and paisleys of pureed things green, brown, and gold—here and there a scatter of fried capers like so many frizzled commas, a carrot, five sprouts, six dust mounds. It’s tweezer food to the extreme.
Even though the food is presented to share, it can be very awkward to share. “Is that a vein?” asked one of my friends one night, looking at a sinuous thing the size of a small earthworm. “No, it’s a pickled fern connecting a prune log with a liver disc the size of a quarter,” I replied, and then we had to figure out how to split it. My advice: Go to Travail for tasting menus with people you are comfortable swapping spit with, as many of the dishes are composed plates of 18 things the size of a pea, a nickel, dust, a smudge, a fried nubbin, a swipe, an eyebrow—and sharing them results in inequities, broken shards, and a unique closeness.
Oh, I forgot to mention: Sometimes in Travail there are stilt walkers, silver-painted street performers, spontaneous bouts of off-key karaoke, or a guy wearing a nametag reading “Ass Hat,” and they give you a gracious little gift of muffins on your way out. Emoji: These are the facts, people.
In the back of Travail at the Rookery, the food is less expensive, less fussy, less unrooted, and better mainly because it’s less separated from the thing it is—it’s an egg, or beef marrow, or brussels sprouts. And having a thing in the center of the plate to focus on allows these talented chefs to exercise a little more discipline with their prodigious skill set. For instance, there’s an egg. Just an egg, in its shell, softly scrambled with a mascarpone cream, topped with tiny shavings of true black truffle. Sumptuous. Lyrical. Exquisite even. At only $3, get one for yourself and one for your date. Don’t share the egg. In fact, resist the all-staff push to get you to share things; you want your own egg.
You also want your own bone marrow, a black charred bone freed of its fillings over a springy fresh bowl of radish, a few herb oils, and a silky bit of chopped garlic to stir in with the marrow. By the time the marrow is blended with the garlic and radish it becomes fresh and gains vigor. By the time it hits the toast it is nothing but a triumph, layers of herb and sensuous fat and indulgence.
Most of the dishes at the Rookery cost $2, $3, $4, or rarely $5, $6, or $8. My advice is to start off with three or four of something for everyone along with the truly extraordinary cocktails, and then add courses as you go. You will be delighted. I was. I found a few things that didn’t make me swoon, but for every mild success there is a staggering home run, and that’s about as good as food gets.
I lift my ban on sharing for the desserts, which can be well shared, and they’re quite good. I’ve tried a delicate panna cotta cut into tiny squares and paired with various nuts and pineapple elements, a white chocolate ice cream paired with a crisp tuile and an elegant little moscato gelée, and a sweet and likable peanut butter and jelly ice cream sandwich.
Now the big question: For your quarter of a million dollars, did you get a restaurant in the top strata of Minnesota restaurants? I think you did. Take a bow. Good return on investment with a clear brand strategy and well-defined customers. But can Travail be one of the top two or three restaurants in the state? The wine list is mediocre, with mostly popular table wines at high prices. Sometimes chefs come to the table in aprons so filthy they look as if they’ve been butchering hogs all day and are now here with your canapé.
There were many times at this new Travail when I thought: These many chefs really have no idea what it’s like to be sitting at a table having a three-hour dinner; they only know what it’s like to be cooking the individual elements of the three-hour dinner. This leads to phenomenal joys but also to an experience that’s sometimes more about the cooks than the customers. Emoji: smiley face/that’s what people always liked about it in the first place? Travail/The Rookery, 4124 Broadway Ave. W., Robbinsdale, 763-535-1131