There are few human traits as infectious as enthusiasm.
"Oh, man, I wish you'd been here a month ago," said staffer Geoff Hausmann when he spied me walking in the door at Travail Kitchen & Amusements. "We were pulling chanterelles out of Theodore Wirth Park, and you would have loved it."
I sure would have. That's some salutation, right? Conjuring up a mental image of a bunch of energetic chefs gleefully foraging for delicacies through Minneapolis' largest park is just one tiny example of the we-love-what-we-do attitude that permeates nearly every aspect of this remarkable, spirited enterprise.
Mike Brown and James Winberg, the restaurant's hardworking co-owners, have known each other less than two years, and yet they work together as if they're lifelong pals; at least their adventurous cooking tastes that way.
Now as their own bosses, the collaborative aura that blossomed during their brief but shining tenure at the nearby Victory 44 has been kicked up several notches. All staffers in this downtown Robbinsdale hot spot both cook and serve, and everyone on the payroll contributes to developing the constantly changing menu. Let's just say that I wish my work environment were so creatively charged, because dining here is a blast.
Contemporary bells and whistles are the name of the game, with flavors and textures manipulated through a playful parade of powders, foams, gelatins, tapioca pearls and scents, then packaged into 15 or so options that range from small plates to meal-sized entrees. How Brown and Winberg keep this entertaining circus afloat while charging Panera prices is a mystery, but hey, I'm not complaining.
Their mad-scientist approach to cooking can be summed up in, of all things, a stunner of a beet salad. Every conceivable kitchen technique was seemingly utilized: roasting, pickling, dehydrating, frying, juicing, infusing the root vegetable's flavor into a powder, a vinaigrette and a gelatin, and probably a few more that I can't recall, turning each nibble into an amusing round of How the Heck Did They Do This?
Hints of jalapeño and preserved lemon added depth, and the plate was arranged with a painter's eye, utilizing all the pinks, golds and reds of the beet rainbow. Did I mention that this impressive burst of labor-intense creativity was just $5?
Simply stated: Wow
Here's what keeps this particular brand of conceptual cooking from veering into silliness or irrelevance: It tastes good. Great, even. Witness the successful iterations of deconstructed (and beautifully re-constructed) dishes. One, labeled "chicken pot pie," pulled apart the classic formula's primary elements, glossed them over like Angelina Jolie walking the red carpet and then meticulously reassembled them into glamorous fall comfort food.
Never heard of gorlami? Me, either. Turns out it's a made-up name, inspired by a line from "Inglourious Basterds," but its fabulous, late-summer flavors were entirely real: a tender, buttery pasta ribbon laid out on a slow-cooked sweet corn pudding and dressed with caramelized bits of zucchini and a tangy goat's milk froth.
House-made tofu was decorated with chips made of lotus root, watermelon and sweet potato, geometrically arranged as if Mondrian had been handed a Lego starter kit. Rabbit was prepared four ways on a single plate -- the leg, confit-style, was fall-apart magnificent, the loin was served with the animal's bones fanning out like a gravity-defying Calatrava bridge. Seared scallops were perfectly calibrated against a cauliflower purée and a delicately poached Asian pear, the chic monotone color palette disguising the dish's true purpose as an exercise in gentle sweetness.
Fat is this kitchen's best friend. The charcuterie platter, a wonder to behold, is a three-way intersection of skill, imagination and, most especially, prodigious quantities of animal fat -- seriously, I defy anyone to take one look at it and not reflexively think of Lipitor.
A carefully prepared assortment of rillettes, pâtés and tartares is joined by such exoticisms as deep-fried pig trotter and rabbit mortadella, then finished with touches that range from dainty but flavor-packed gelatin cubes (carrot, cucumber) to tangy apricot-kissed mostarda.
Another fat-is-fab example: the French fries. Turns out they're brushed in bacon fat the second they're yanked from the deep fryer, then tossed with more herbs than a certain Simon & Garfunkel song. They are ridiculously addictive (aided by a punchy, dried fruit-infused ketchup), and when I pointed this out to Brown, he did what these guys reflexively do, and took it a step further.
"We'd fry them in duck fat, if we could afford to," he said, his eyes twinkling with mischief. "Someone should step in and fund that for us." Any takers? Please?
Those in search of a bar basic won't be disappointed. The burger is terrific, juicy, brightly seasoned and lavishly dressed. The fried catfish sandwich, with its sweet pickled green tomato relish, was a revelation; ditto the simple combination of butter-basted Lake Superior herring and earthy, melt-in-your-mouth Maitake mushrooms.
A few missteps along the way
Sure, the occasional dish falls a bit flat. Witness the oddly bland pastrami, or an unnecessarily fussy pork belly preparation, one of several too-complicated offerings. I was occasionally flummoxed by sodium overkill, and several lukewarm dishes should have arrived piping hot.
At dessert, skip the single $4 preparation and indulge in the way-over-the-top $9 tasting, a silly but good-natured bombardment of delicacies -- think four to five courses -- that's occasionally repetitive but almost tirelessly inventive. Who else but this crew would riff on the beloved s'more by starting with a scene-setting whiff of campfire smoke? Or purchase frozen nitrogen in bulk?
The bare-bones, do-it-yourself space dabbles in several current restaurant design trends -- horizontal wood plank walls, chalkboard menus -- without feeling slickly packaged (which could explain why the lighting feels a tad harsh). Our nation's political system could take a few cues from the fascinating transparency that comes when a counter snuggles right up to the cooking line and a watch-them-work prep station is parked in the front window.
Anyone obsessed with inner workings of "Top Chef" will be all over this layout, as it provides front-row views inside a young, talented kitchen. It's also a fitting scenario to the restaurant's name, which translates from the French word for "work." The Amusements part speaks for itself.
How refreshing to find such a juiced-up restaurant outside the downtown-Uptown-Lowertown circuit. "Where's Robbinsdale?" is the question I got from more than one urban-centric friend after extending a dinner invitation, underscoring how working-class suburbs, very nearly devoid of this level of cooking expertise, are almost invisible to the foodiscenti.
With efforts like Travail, that oversight is surely coming to a close. It's about time.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757