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Burger Friday: The Rookery

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: July 25, 2014 - 7:24 AM

The burger: At the Rookery, the small-plates/cocktails side of Travail Kitchen and Amusements, scale is everything. (Well, almost everything; taste and ingenuity and value rank right up there, too).

In a world where third-pound burgers are rapidly becoming the norm, chefs/co-owners Mike Brown, James Winberg and Bob Gerken go the other direction and embrace modesty, serving a burger that can be politely consumed in four or five dainty bites. It's slightly larger than a typical slider, but smaller (albeit much taller) than a standard-issue McDonald's burger.

"If you get this burger it's not like, 'game over,'" said Brown. "You get a giant burger at other places, and that's it, man, you're done. If you're interested in another part of the menu, forget it, that's not possible. And we used to do that. At the old Travail, with the Broadway Butter Burger, if you had that, and some duck fat fries, and a few beers, that was it, that was the whole experience."

No longer. The cramped storefront that was the original Travail is now the partnership's Pig Ate My Pizza, and the new Travail -- a few doors south of the old one -- is split in half, format-wise; go to the left and you're in tasting menu-only territory, and if you take a seat to the right, you'll select from a list of 20 or so small plate (or "micro plates," in Travail-speak) that include this boffo burger.

"At Travail, it's two hours long, and you're going to sit back and get blasted with food," said Brown. "But the Rookery side is different. You can sit down and punch holes in that menu, and an hour later, you can leave."

The burger is equipped with a bare minimum of bells and whistles. Well, for Travail, anyway, where if the staff doesn't have more-is-more tattooed somewhere on their forearms, they should. The intensely flavorful patty is a luxurious blend of brisket and scraps of aged rib-eye, a rich blend that's seasoned with fresh thyme and salt and pepper, plus onions and garlic that have been sweated on the stove. The mix is loosely formed by hand until it just holds the shape of a roulade, then it's sliced into thick-ish patties. A hot flattop grill takes the exteriors to a lightly caramelized char but keep the interior a velvety medium-rare. It's wonderfully juicy and deeply aromatic, the kind of beef bonanza that taunts your nostils long before it ever approaches your taste buds.

The house-baked bun, tender from plenty of milk yet capable of holding up to that juicy patty, gets the buttered-and-toasted treatment, then both top and bottom are swiped with a Dijon mustard emulsion. Instead of lettuce there's nicely bitter mustard greens, then a few thin-sliced slabs of house-cured bacon, chased by a layer of seductively melty Gruyere. The finishing touch is a palate-cleansing cornichon pickle.

 Turns out, Brown is right. I knocked mine back in four bites ("I can take it down in one or two," he said with a laugh), my admiration for the kitchen's burger-making prowess increasing with each progressive chomp.

My initial temptation was to immediately order a second one. But then I remembered the over-the-top scrambled egg, served in its lovely terra cotta-colored shell ($4, pictured, above), and the beyond-tender octopus ($5, surrounded by a pool of yellow bell pepper broth) and a half-dozen other goodies that I wanted to revisit, and I was grateful that my post-burger appetite allowed me to do just that.

Price: $5. Order two and you'll hit, portions-wise, what you'd probably encounter elsewhere, although finding a burger this good for $10 won't be easy. As for the rest of the Rookery menu, it currently features 25 savories, all in the $3-to-$8 range, along with a half-dozen sweets that land in between $1 and $3. The Rookery also offers its own tasting menu, a greatest-hits compilation that runs $40. I highly recommend it.

Fries: Not included. And not available. Well, not really. Right now the kitchen is doing what it does best, namely a dolled-up version of fries, by puffing up finger-shaped potatoes, souffle-style, until they're golden brown, then serving them with creme fraiche and caviar. "It's sick, dude," said Brown with a laugh. "I'm telling you, it's such a cool little dish." The caviar is served in an amusing sleight-of-hand manner: the kitchen empties 1-ounce caviar jars, refilling them almost to the top with creme fraiche that has been dyed (with squid ink) to match the caviar's black color. That's topped off with a single trompe l'oeil-like layer of fish eggs. The result? It looks as if guests are getting an entire ounce of caviar for $6 (although I imagine that the disappointment that they're not is alleviated by the masterful caviar-creme fraiche combination). "It's the most perfect little snack, ever, just awesome bar food," said Brown. Yeah, that just soared to the top of my to-taste list.

Floor show: The hard-working Travail-Rookery crew is back on the job after taking a much-deserved mid-summer vacation, and here's hoping that one of my favorite evening rituals has survived the hiatus. At some point during service, Brown steps away from the kitchen to don a chicken suit while chef Nelson Cabrera slips into a kind of robot-meets-Tin Man getup. Cabrera steps up onto a cart, and as Brown pushes him around the dining room and bar -- while simultaneously (and inexplicably) fake-types on a desktop computer keyboard -- they pantomime god-knows-what while tossing popcorn at one another.

I know. I'm what-the-heck-ing as I type that. But trust me: It's peculiar, and utterly, wonderfully Travail.

Address book: 4124 W. Broadway Av., Robbinsdale, 763-535-1131. Open 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday. through Saturday.

Talk to me: Do yo have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

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