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Multiply the moving parts in that one dish by a factor of 20 — that’s the sum of every savory course, dessert, amuse-bouche and intermezzo that makes up the average Travail tasting menu — and you’ll get a sense of the powerful creative forces in play.
Rethinking the gastropub
Meanwhile, the Rookery boasts its own tasting menu, an 11-course, crazily affordable “bite flight.” It’s a greatest-hits selection culled from a chalkboard list of two dozen a la carte dishes sold at cut-rate prices, a roster that steers the gastropub concept in exciting new directions. Like its Travail counterpart, it’s a process that’s reminiscent of Minnesota weather: If a dish doesn’t impress, just wait five minutes and something entirely different will blur into view.
Brown eggshells are filled with the creamiest scrambled eggs imaginable. A super-flavor-concentrated lobster bisque is garnished with a tiny dream of a shrimp roll. An acidic burst of lemon cuts through raw hamachi’s cool, pristine nature.
Fantastic boudin blanc sausages (like all of the restaurant’s fabricated meats, they are prepared with obvious finesse by longtime Travailian Geoff Hausmann), dressed with truffled dwarf peaches, masquerade as hot dogs. Even the slider-sized brisket burgers are a treat.
Then there’s one of the most dazzling dishes I’ve encountered this year: octopus, slowly braised to maximum tenderness, its quiet oceanic flavor brilliantly foiled by zesty Spanish chorizo, pillowy pan-seared gnocchi and fire-roasted, teasingly smoky orange bell peppers. Its just-right finishing touch was a tableside pour — at Travail, is there any other kind? — of a colorful, nose-tickling broth, one that exuded the gentle essence of those sweet peppers. That all this culinary glory can be had for a ridiculous $3 is emblematic of the restaurant’s commitment to value.
Such stratospheric highs are tempered by occasionally uneven moments. Some dishes suffer from what feels like too much improvisation, while others need to be pared by a sharp-eyed editor. Dessert sometimes veers into weak-link status, a shame since it’s the evening’s parting shot.
Repetition can creep in, whether it’s a format issue (what, another item on a stick?), a preponderance of a distinctive ingredient (enough with the truffle already) or a relentless caloric sameness (after one particularly fat-laden evening, I would have killed for a few fresh vegetables). Pacing can be sporadic, service niceties can be overlooked and despite well-schooled crowd management, the no-reservations policy can be maddening.
But complaints evaporate when a sizzling pan of scallops, caramelizing in foamy brown butter and thyme, is raced from the stove to the table, their powerful scent — a sensory sensation as primal as bacon frying in the morning — boosted by a well-timed, olfactory-enhancing pinch of dehydrated scallop powder. It’s a quintessential experience-driven Travail moment; the MacArthur Foundation has issued Genius Grants for less.
The restaurant’s name may be plucked from the staff’s blue Bragard-brand aprons, but in this instance it’s also no accident that the word is French for work. Brown, Winberg and Gerken have designed their new place to give diners clear sightlines into the endless — and, from the looks of it, endlessly joyful — labors that are required to keep this carnival afloat. Don’t miss your opportunity for a ringside seat.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib.