While Travail waits for its Robbinsdale complex to be built, the acclaimed, off-the-wall suburban restaurant is using a storied address for its pop-up playground. That’s 1930 Hennepin Av. S., once the home of the bastion of Minneapolis fine dining in the 1990s, Auriga.
Auriga was chef Doug Flicker’s domain, and he’s back, joining an all-star team of seasoned chefs for Travail’s latest escapade in the space, “Homage.” This pop-up is all about the ’90s, and not the Mario Brothers, Teen Spirit version on display at arcades all over town. This is a tribute to richness, both culinary and as a matter of wealth — the kind of meal that could only have happened when the economy was booming and people were worry-free enough to relax into a three-hour dinner.
At a preview last week, here’s how Travail’s Homage was taking its cues from that decade of plenty to serve up a luxurious — and a little tongue-in-cheek — flashback feast.
There’s a whopping 15 courses (not including supplements for the VIPs in the room, which will bring the bites in the neighborhood of 20 tastes). Note the palate cleansers, called “mezzo”: mini-sorbets meant to wipe the slate from the previous bites. One of those is usually enough to signal the importance, or at the very least the length, of a meal. This one has three of them.
A scallop comes in an open seashell. Foie gras is in the form of a bonbon. Vegetables, meanwhile, are plated like works of art. Chefs and servers carry giant tweezers they use to meticulously arrange shaved radish and asparagus, peas and pea dust, and bits of beet that circle a goat cheese ravioli (could that get any more ’90s?) like petals on a flower.
Every course is attributed to a chef, some big names from Twin Cities restaurants of decades past, others known throughout the world for their fine-dining bona fides. In this culinary fantasyland, Jean-George Vongerichten and Thomas Keller rub shoulders with locals Vincent Francoual and Steven Brown. The first course is a plate of three amuse-bouche, each corresponding to a back-in-the-day yearbook-style photo of the chef who created it. James Beard award-winning chef Tim McKee? He had to have been voted Best Smile for that grin.
While they probably would not have been played in New York’s Le Bernardin circa 1998, here you can hear Vanilla Ice, Hootie and the Blowfish, and the Spice Girls. Another scene-setter is the art — oversized, primary color-rich paintings and sculpture by Minneapolis artist Leon Hushcha. Plus, a wall of (fake, deliberately) fig leaves.
There’s a laughably oversized cheese cart. It’s among the many props that wheel up to the table over the course of the evening. Cooks prepare two elaborate dishes tableside, and desserts roll by on a marble slab.
And those desserts
Salty Tart’s Michelle Gayer is making the classic sweets, inspired by Chicago restaurateur Charlie Trotter: chocolate soufflé and creme brûlée. After everything that came before, it’s a challenge to keep going. But this wouldn’t be ’90s indulgence if there were only an after-dinner mint. Travail chef Mike Brown knows diners are beyond full at that point. And yet, “We want to make people an offer they can’t refuse.”
Homage runs through May. Tickets start at $95. Travail (1930 Hennepin Av. S., 763-535-1131, travailkitchen.com/tickets).