The boundlessly energetic staffers at Travail Kitchen and Amusements aren't just chefs, they're vaudevillians. Slapping a tired "dinner theater" label on their Tony Award-worthy variety show doesn't do it justice.
At some point in the evening, the lights will dim and a recording of one of Bach's moody suites for unaccompanied cello will replace the sound system's regularly scheduled raucousness. That's the cue for long pine planks to be arranged in a row, where they're garnished with meticulously crafted charcuterie and delivered around the dining room with great ceremony. Because, well, just because.
Watch for the moment when large glazed white tiles will be arranged on a giant easel. Tapping their inner Jackson Pollock, a chef will use it as a kind of canvas, flinging color-saturated juice concentrates (formulated in a vintage, retrofitted science lab centrifuge unearthed from goodness-knows-where, but that's another story) to create one-night-only dessert platters.
Join in as the kitchen crew belts out a frat-boy drinking song while collectively chug-a-lugging beer from an enormous glass boot. Or just gaze in bemused amazement as a dude in a chicken suit — you read that right — and another guy in a robot costume (played by co-owner Mike Brown and chef Nelson Cabrera, respectively) pantomime a choreographed shtick involving a cart, a keyboard and a large bowl of popcorn. Don't ask.
Then there's the pasta course, breathlessly assembled tableside by a mini-marching band, each one enlisted with a different task: pouring a smoked eggplant cream
sauce over a braid of house-made angel hair pasta, using a cartoonish syringe to inject the pasta with a saffron-lemon emulsion, sprinkling crispy fried sweetbreads, spooning earthy roasted maitake mushrooms, wielding ubiquitous tweezer tongs (proficiently working in miniature is clearly a condition of employment) to add a delicate toast garnish, then spritzing a lemony mist to accentuate the dish's citrus underpinnings. Hilarious, and delicious.
That gleeful sense of humor also permeates the surroundings. The front door was retrieved from a meat locker. The entry doubles as a donor wall — surely a restaurant first — a roll call representing those who contributed to last fall's astoundingly successful (to the tune of $255,669) Kickstarter campaign. A supersized, ultra-twee Crate & Barrel couldn't possibly conjure up the endlessly amusing tableware and glassware inventory.
While there's a do-it-yourself quality that's going to date itself, fast, Travail's greatest interior design triumph is how it makes a success of the communal table, a near-impossible achievement in a frozen land that values personal space above all else. When seated in this conversation-starting setting, even the most reserved among us can't help interacting with fellow diners.
A pair of battered 42-gallon silver metal tanks, parked outside the restrooms and used to store liquid nitrogen, broadcast the restaurant's intentions loud and clear. What other Twin Cities restaurant commits itself to the tenets of molecular gastronomy with such buy-in-bulk gusto?
Unlike its cramped initial iteration, which opened in 2010 in Robbinsdale and is located a few doors up the street (and now home to sibling establishment Pig Ate My Pizza), the newer, far roomier Travail allows co-owners Brown, James Winberg and Bob Gerken to push their maverick operation to greater and certainly more entertaining heights.
It's now two restaurants, housed in a single, wide-open space. Travail, which adheres to a tasting-menu-only format, is to the left. On the right is the Rookery, which focuses on a flurry of what are pitched as micro-plates (translation: barely larger than bite-size portions) plus a cocktail program that's faithful to the kitchen's forward-thinking practices.
One of Travail's most remarkable characteristics is its organizational chart, which rejects the standard top-down chain of command in favor of a highly collaborative model. The 27 people working in the kitchen share most functions, switching up between cooking, serving, bartending, scrubbing the restroom floors and every task in between. Everyone in the building (except for the host and five dishwashers) contributes to the menu.
"The process has stayed the same since the day we opened," said Brown. "Any idea is a good idea, whether you own the restaurant or you just started."
While the buck ultimately stops with the three owners — and in the end, their overarching aesthetic prevails — tapping into that kind of collective brain trust is a clear boon for diners. The sheer wealth of creativity emanating from this risk-embracing ensemble translates into wave after wave of ingeniously conceived and authoritatively executed fare.
Travail's tech-loving workforce never ignores an opportunity to transform humble kitchen staples — sunchokes or celery root, for example — from their God-given form into a froth, powder, emulsion, gelée or purée, often presenting the fascinating results from all of the above in a single dish. It's a smart strategy on so many levels, not the least of which is how it stretches the kitchen's budget. Why bombard diners with expensive foie gras, when carrots can be manipulated into something downright riveting?
It's hard to conceive of a more playful cooking aesthetic. Where else will you encounter a cherry-glazed liver mousse done up like a Tootsie Pop? Or an amuse-bouche assembled on the backs of diners' hands? Or a spring salad presented as a micro-terrarium? Or a three-dimensional beef carpaccio? Or a shrimp boil's flavors reduced into a crispy cracker? This place is a riot.
But the fun has a serious side, particularly when it comes to unlocking the harmony between seemingly discordant flavors, textures and colors. My mind immediately goes to a sage-scented panna cotta that slowly melted into a silky butternut squash soup. The elevated herbaciousness of fried sage blossomed nicely against the surprise bonus at the bottom of the bowl, a sweet-tart slice of lemon-enriched grilled pineapple. It was a taste triumph, rounded out by an oddly like-minded combination of crispy speck, spicy arugula and Parmesan- and black pepper-dashed popcorn.
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.