After all the hype, I was prepared (nay, chomping at the bit) to be critical. How likely is it to be pleased with a kitchen adored by food-bible Bon Appétit for its ultra-insider food experiments? Which refuses to take reservations despite a wait calculated in hours? And which is way-the-heck out in frickin’ Robbinsdale?
Bristling with defensive armor, we shouldered our way in the door at Travail (the French word for “work”) at prime time, and—what’s this?—were immediately directed to the best seats in the house, at the counter fronting the open kitchen (OK, they were the last seats remaining in a room where nobody would move for the next two hours. Our good fortune.)
“Tasting menu?” asked one of the 13 kerchiefed guys cooking, then serving, the weekly-changing menu for its 54 seats—guys who looked more like roofers or auto mechanics than effete food fanatics. Which they are. Tasting menu it is: 10 official courses and several more surprise bites, on shared plates for $30.
OK, show me.
And they did. Each course is big enough for two, yet proportioned so that by No. 10 you’re sated but can still drive home. First out, what the guy in the red kerchief called the Vegetable Garden—like a Japanese miniature flowerbed composed of painstakingly-chiseled bits of zucchini-as-dirt, beet topiaries, date “worms” (I quote), roasted grapes, and on the side, a shot glass of “Lemon Sphere” tea foam topped with zings of palate-popping “lemon pixie dust.” Sounds too-too precious, but, despite what they might have been smoking when they devised the edible joke, it actually works— created with equal parts of TLC, zany humor and thinking way-way outside the box. By Plate 2, I’d clearly let down my guard. I’d drunk the Kool-Aid (cleverly disguised as Viognier) and I was hooked. Bring it on!
Which they did. Next up, one of the surprise extras: a lolly the size of a marble on a stick composed of velvety foie gras puree wrapped around (trust me on this) a Swedish gummi-fish candy, then topped with crumbled pistachios. Then, a second gift from the kitchen—the world’s smallest cannoli (oh, maybe half an inch) stuffed with mascarpone and almonds. What masochistic gnome fashioned these, I wonder?
A tartare of scallops followed, joined by a mini-turnip, mushrooms and more under a gush of garlic butter, poured over the soup plate as we inhaled. Then, beef carpaccio, translucent as tissue paper, accompanied by foie gras, parsnips and a cracker. With our last sip of Viognier, we dipped into agnelotti—pasta bundles that enfolded black beans, orange, mascarpone and mozzarella—bobbing in a bowl of avocado puree. We licked the plate.
Then a glass of red to introduce a dish setting off snapper accompanied by sweet pepper puree, baby zucchini, newborn green peas still in their pod, and more. Monkfish followed, then rabbit three ways: the tiniest rack you ever did see, a morsel of confit and another of husky sausage, along with shiitakes and a sweet, pure sweet potato puree leading the cast.
Another between-course surprise arrived: a soup spoon of frozen grapefruit granules that exploded in your mouth, preparing our palates (or not) for the ensuing pork tenderloin, served aside a strip of brown-sugar sprinkled bacon—raw upon arrival but not for long. Another guy in a bandanna hoists a blowtorch to quick-fry the strip on your plate. This dish also comes painted with a sunny egg yolk, adorned with thyme-flavored potato chips and an egg cup of sweet baked beans, along with pickled neo-natal asparagus. This round seemed all about showtime, rich with familiar flavor combos but far from “huh?”
Then, ready or not, a pre-dessert arrived, like an orange-flavored Dreamsicle but (of course) far more complicated. The actual dessert finale was a tribute to pineapple: a sliver of a tender tart, a dollop of sorbet, and a dice of candied fruit.
These guys are like a rock band, clearly loving—and pumped by—the work they do, so much that you probably wouldn’t have to pay them. (As it is, considering all the laborious hand-carving, pureeing and re-forming of the many elements composing each of the many plates, they probably earn about 25 cents an hour anyway.) If you’d prefer to put together your own tasting menu, just glance at the list of similar small plates on the blackboard, most well under $10.
No frills here. Pluck your eating utensils from a jelly jar (another serves as water glass). Just suspend your disbelief and enjoy.