4124 W. Broadway, Robbinsdale
No sign on the façade. The entrance—when you finally find it—is through an industrial refrigerator door. Rock music blares, competing with a sports bar TV. The kitchen crew (who double as servers) are dolled up with piercings, tattoos, T-shirts and bandannas. No reservations, no menu, no romance.
Oh wait, yes there is! It’s a love affair with food, the only thing that matters here. And it’s the most inventive, way-out food in Minnesota, served in unlikely Robbinsdale by a crew looking more like bikers than high priests of haute cuisine. Welcome to Travail, newly reopened after a year-long hiatus to move to new, bigger digs via a gangbuster kickstarter campaign. Yet the line out the door is longer than ever. (They open at 5, and foodies leave the office early. We arrived at 6 and nursed pints of Surly till 7:30, when we were grateful for a couple of stools facing the kitchen.)
This is no ordinary kitchen. It’s more like a chem lab combined with an operating theater. But no, this cooking isn’t brain surgery—it’s far more demanding. This is molecular gastronomy, after all. The crew starts prepping at 10:30 a.m., dicing veggies into micro-millimeters, grinding mushrooms into powder, fabricating broths and sauces.
When it’s time to eat, diners follow barked instructions, like “Hold out your hand!” A spoon is clamped to your pointer, holding a single grape (peeled, of course) with salmon roe, crème fraiche and tarragon. Next comes another little extra: an inch-square BLT. Then shrimp salad with more roe and apple, over which your cook/waiter pours the world’s best lobster bisque.
Next up, husky beef carpaccio atop a wavy cracker, served with carrot butter, lemon, Japanese mayo and the powdered shell of something or other (they’re speaking too fast for me now). It’s followed by a square of salmon paired with another of potato scallop, aided by sundried tomato butter and, plated with a pair of tweezers, a microscopic piece of salmon skin. A gush of brown butter poured, as you’re poised with your fork, completes this course.
The assembly of the next plate is done like a scene-change in a play. First, a baby cup of beer-cheese soup, delivered with the warning, “Don’t eat! Look at it, smell it. Don’t eat it!” Soon fellow actors come onstage: eggplant, Parmesan, a tendril of wild mushroom, a mini-sweetbread, a lemon crostini. But wait! Here comes a surgical needle, which injects saffron. “Now you may eat.”
Then another surprise gift, a skewer of chicken, like a Tootsie pop. It’s followed by maybe my fave of all the courses, a medley of spring vegetables: ramps, nettles, morels, fiddlehead ferns, with morel powder masquerading as dirt. Onto it swaggers a nugget of sausage, then a splash of tomato-pink choron sauce. Next, time for the Cubano number: ham, mustard pickle, pork pastrami, a cranberry-fruit “ketchup” and French fries, served with a glass of house-made Orange Crush. It’s followed by pools of polenta with feta, beets and carrots three ways, awaiting the addition of scallops and butter sauce.
Some assembly required for the next course, delivered (really!) on a 2 x 4: ham, truffle powder, cocoa, micro greens, walnut butter and a newborn cornichon. Finally, the steak course: ruddy beef paired with black garlic puree, beurre rouge sauce, turnips, celery root, blood orange, and—soon: just wait—ravioli filled with beef cheek, topped with a white vegetable butter.
Ready for dessert? The pre-dessert teaser comes on another skewer: this time, chocolate-covered cookie. Then the real deal: the show-stopping dry-ice production of mist, then bubbles that turn into ice cream; goat cheese panna cotta, chocolate cake, green apple spears and Martian antennae of rice noodles spearing mini-marshmallows.
Check, please? The ten-course (plus, plus, plus) extravaganza rings in at a bit over $100 for two. P.S. In the same building the crew runs The Rookery, in which you create your own tasting menu from a list of small plates, most around $5, and no wait in line.