REVIEW: Travail's spontaneous, fun-loving offshoot is breaking all kinds of rules. Thank goodness.
The restaurant that is currently setting Instagram on fire hasn’t taken up residence in the North Loop, Uptown or some other hot-hot-hot real estate. Nope, the faithful are streaming to north Minneapolis, an otherwise desert for dining out.
Umami by Travail materialized, seemingly overnight, a few weeks ago inside the abandoned outlet of a fried chicken chain. What’s probably the Twin Cities’ first bona fide pop-up restaurant has sprung from the hotbed of maverick creativity known as Travail Kitchen and Amusements. Sidelined for the past six months by the construction of Travail’s new Robbinsdale home, owners James Winberg, Mike Brown and Bob Gerken haven’t been content to sit on the sidelines. Not when there’s cooking to do and serious fun to be had.
Instead, they’ve channeled their limitless energy into a number of novel ventures: dinners at friends’ restaurants, a farmers market hot-dog stand and a Kickstarter campaign that has raised a quarter of a million dollars, surely a local record.
But nothing tops the sheer show-biz-i-ness of Umami, a reservations-only culinary adventure in the form of a 10-course, $40 dinner. After securing a prepaid online reservation, diners are seated, 12 at a time, at one of four communal tables. Once a polite query regarding food allergies is taken care of, the group is inundated with one flavor- and texture-packed dish after the next.
Tasting menus can occasionally lapse into a let’s-get-this-over-with marathon, dulling both appetites and attention spans. Not here. The pace is quick — occasionally, the speed can be a bit overzealous — and because dishes are shared between pairs of diners, the portion size is enough to capture each course’s essence without leaving a person feeling overwhelmed.
Aside from a brief flirtation with foie gras, the kitchen steers clear of luxe ingredients. Instead, the balance sheet is more heavily weighted toward manpower, with ingenuity and know-how transforming a procession of familiar Asian tent poles — ramen, congee, spring rolls, dumplings, kimchee and more — into unconventional flights of fancy that manage to taste expensive.
“It’s delicious, and I’m not even sure what I’m eating,” gushed the woman next to me. Agreed, with silky, carefully seared cubes of tofu resting in a shallow pool of preserved fish stock and sharing the plate with thumb-size pieces of miso-braised octopus, a fragrant shiso foam and cool orange accents.
It was also as striking as a midcareer Miro. Thank goodness I’ve become one of those awful people who brandish their smartphones at dinner, because my hastily shot photo has served to remind my eyes and taste buds of its overall genius.
Equally impressive was a standard-setting bowl of bouncy, house-made ramen, with mouth-melting slices of five-spice-seasoned pork belly locked inside a ham hock broth, each spoonful brimming with smoky shiitake mushroom intensity. Simplicity rules, too: Witness spectacularly tender bulgogi-esque beef short ribs.
Seemingly incongruous flavor combinations are frequently made to feel inevitable. Ponzu added just the right acidic element to an open-faced dumpling filled with black garlic and smoked ham hock. An intensely flavorful fish sauce accented tiny, herb-packed spring rolls and pristine hamachi.
Cross-cultural creativity goes into overtime when rice porridge bears traces of an Asian-inspired shrimp and grits, with cool pops of grapefruit dancing with jolts of jalapeño and ginger.
A trio of house-made sausages dazzled. Still, they were overshadowed by fried chicken drumsticks, their biting soy-garlic marinade inserting deeply savory notes into the cracklingly crispy skin and outlandishly juicy meat.
(By the way, the kitchen maintains a small takeout menu, a handful of $5 items headlined by a half-dozen of those fantastic chicken wings. Not only are they cheaper than the wings sold next door at Little Caesars, they’re roughly 782 times better.)
Broadway, on Broadway
The shameless theatricality of the meal is a total hoot. Another chicken dish — this time, the bird was pressed, with a more delicately crispy skin — was finished with a tableside pour of a cleanly fragrant coconut curry broth. Tiny burning coals sent up aromatherapeutic smoke signals of burning rosemary, a sensory complement to a beautifully roasted array of bok choy, cauliflower and broccoli.
Christening the restaurant with the umami moniker seems fitting (it’s the taste sensation that’s independent from sweet, salty, bitter and sour; pronounced oo-MAH-mee), although the weakness of the kitchen’s super-savory mentality is dessert.
That said, one effort embodied the giddy show-and-tell-iness of a classic Travail experience, and then some: a tableside concoction involving skewered Asian pears, an Orange Dreamsicle-like flourish and plenty of fog-generating liquid nitrogen.
No, Umami doesn’t take itself seriously. The craft of cooking, yes; the dining-out experience, no. With frat-boy chug-a-lugs (you’ll find yourself singing “more beer” to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”) and regular forays into karaoke (velvet-voiced Gerken croons an impressive “Neon Moon”), the staff generates a lively Oktoberfest-in-Chinatown atmosphere.
Yet the party doesn’t feel manufactured. Everyone on the payroll is clearly having a blast, and they’re not shy about showing it. How very un-Minnesotan of them, and how marvelous.
Change is in the air
Although the ownership team will soon begin to turn their attention back to the Robbinsdale mother ship, the good news is that Umami will continue past its pop-up expiration date, with a format tweak.
The current tasting menu, which requires a watchful care-and-feeding regimen from Brown, Winberg and Gerken, will be replaced by a dim-sum-style setup (“with a charcuterie twist,” said Brown). A new name, too: Umami Dim Sum.
Following the example of matriculating mentored Travail cooks into leadership positions, the revised Umami will be managed by Travail alumni Geoff Hausmann (who has been killing it at the Sample Room in northeast Minneapolis for the past year) and two current staffers, Wilhelm Von Mandel and Sean Little.
Talent begets talent, right? Another narrative — this time a reinterpretation of the location, location, location mantra — is also in play.
Until Travail came along, who would have thought that local culinarians would beat a path to sleepy downtown Robbinsdale? With Umami, that same crew has proved, once again, that one restaurateur’s previously ignored location is another’s dining-out gold mine.
Who knows? Umami’s success could spark more investment in north Minneapolis, giving the area the turnaround that it needs and deserves.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib