Almost a year after closing for a relocation and expansion project, the crew behind the nationally renowned eatery Travail opened a two-pronged reincarnation Tuesday just a few doors down from their original Robbinsdale home.
Really, the Travail guys were on hiatus for only about a month last spring while chefs/co-owners Mike Brown, Bob Gerken and James Winberg transformed their red-hot restaurant into Pig Ate My Pizza. The adventurous pie haven and Umami — last fall’s wild and widely praised pop-up — kept local foodies appeased as they readied Travail 2.0.
“In 12 hours it went from [us] having a tool belt on to having an apron on,” said Winberg, bellied-up to his new 17-seat bar. “Building this restaurant was literally a seven-day-a-week, 12-to-16-hour-a-day job for four months.”
Since opening in 2010, Travail and its beer-chugging chefs have become fan favorites on the local food scene, helping them raise a staggering quarter-million in Kickstarter bucks for their new venture. The Travail team has turned the fine-dining experience into a convivial, open-kitchen party — whether through ziggy-zaggy chants or Umami’s karaoke and sake bombs. But one thing has been missing: a full liquor license.
Not anymore. In the same 4,800-square-foot space, the trio has launched the Rookery, a 54-seat cocktail bar and restaurant with a menu of a la carte micro-plates. While Travail and its artisanal tasting menus are still the showstoppers, Winberg hopes the Rookery will become an attraction of its own while serving as an overflow area for Travail (both are walk-in only).
The drinks program is led by Winberg and Gerken, whose only barspoon experience came during an impromptu appearance in the North Star Bartenders Guild’s Iron Bartender competition last fall. The duo’s outside-the-box approach and unmatched showmanship (drinks billowing with liquid nitrogen or served in eggshells) landed them in the semifinals, before bumping into the eventual champs from Marvel Bar.
“I learned a lot in that competition, just by watching how smoothly the professionals work,” Gerken said. “They kind of dance behind the bar.”
While the Rookery’s team of rookie drink makers gets its crash course in bartending, Gerken and Winberg are keeping it simple, mostly sticking to pre-Prohibition cocktails. But the left-brain cooks have a few Travailian tricks up their sleeve.
Using an anti-griddle, the culinary wizards freeze Campari and grapefruit juice into tiny discs that guests stir into an otherwise fairly traditional Negroni. Their tequila-spiked Bloody Mary riff leverages a tomato consommé rapidly infused in a whipping canister with coriander, cilantro and jalapeños. The kick-in-pants concoction is neither too mealy for a nighttime bloody nor listlessly anemic like weaker bar mixes.
The rum-based knockout Kung Fuji calls for a house-made apple soda, poured over the booze, rocks and a delicate maple, lemon and Peychaud’s froth. Despite its fall flavors, this crisp palate-cleanser is a year-round winner, too good to be confined by seasonality.
With limited knowledge of the spirit and liqueur spectrum, Winberg and Gerken emphasized in-house ingredients — from the thick, citrus/bitters/maraschino foam in their off-the-wall (if a bit too tart) whiskey sour to the ginger beer in the Weather Terrorist (their Dark and Stormy). “That’s the only way I know how to cook,” said Gerken, as a Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa track boomed through the restaurant’s speakers. “It represents what we’re trying to do with this bar program, too — cook our way through cocktails.”
Chef Kale Thome spearheaded the Rookery’s smorgasbord of intricate mini plates, similar to Umami’s dim sum minus the Asian influence. Delectable oxtail, tortellini stuffed with a parsnip puree and to-die-for ricotta doughnuts (zeppole) with vanilla custard are a few highlights.
By admission, Winberg’s and Gerken’s drink-mixing foray is an ongoing experiment. They’re wisely leaning on the classics while finding their footing, but they said more savory or food-forward cocktails could come over time (preliminary ideas for boozy Dippin’ Dots and a foie gras French 75 didn’t quite make it).
“If you can make a good Old Fashioned and French 75, or a good Manhattan, then maybe you can start to [mess] around with trying to make a cocktail taste like you’re eating a plate of food,” Winberg said. “It’s restraining in a way. It puts the brakes on creativity, but it’s hard to be creative if you don’t know where to start; have something to build off of.”
Watch out once these cooks get comfortable with their Boston shakers.
Michael Rietmulder writes about bars, beer and nightlife.