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First look: Travail and the Rookery

Bob Gerken ready to welcome Travail fans

Bob Gerken ready to welcome Travail fans

Beck is thumping through the speakers as chefs move swiftly about the giant open space. Sodas are being bottled and carbonated by hand. A grown man in a teddy bear hat furiously digs in a low cabinet, practically climbing inside to retrieve more linens. A wild-goateed fellow sharpens knives, furiously gliding blade against steel with mesmerizing speed. Two Nerf guns sit at the ready. 

It's moments before the final "soft" service inside Travail Kitchen and Amusements and the Rookery. The two concepts will welcome a brigade of Kickstarter supporters -- who helped raise over $250,000 for the restaurant redesign and expansion -- for one last exclusive service before the doors are thrown open to the public. The air is electric. 

People are both dancing and deadly serious. Meagan Leafblad will be controlling the door. "Five minutes!" She yells. "We ready to go at five?" She looks around and checks her watch, while everyone jumps like flames behind the the three open prep areas. "Okay, here we go." With that, the line that's been building and wrapping around the building starts to stream in, and business begins inside the most hotly anticipated restaurant opening in recent memory.

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The two spaces feel communal, a sign of the Travail belief that great food should be available to anyone willing to take the crazy ride through haute cuisine. As guests arrive there's a carnival-like atmosphere building (assisted no doubt by the giant stuffed dog crammed into the rafters.) It's their party, but we're all invited.

Every evening, the Travail side of the restaurant, located at the front of the building, serves a set tasting menu. Soon after the guests are served their first-course salad, a young man with a heck of an arm starts tossing bread rolls at anyone with their hands up. There are familiar Travail-ian elements. Anytime someone orders a Surly Bender/Furious combo the chef/server calls, "We got a Fender-here-ah!" The rest of the staff echos, "Fender-here-ah!"
Unlike the original incarnation, this spot comes with a full liquor license. As we saw at this year's Iron Bartender competition, these aren't a lark, but serious craft cocktails pulled through their fun-house prism.

The bar has a unique curved shape that facilitates conversation, unlike the conventional straight bar that gives one the riding-the-bus feeling of sitting next to friends with no eye contact. The design firm refers to it as the "wiggly bar."

The seating is all communal, with long tables and the "hot tub" seat on the Travail side (again, covered in carpet like the original location). The Rookery side also has several large-screen TVs and a P.A. system.

As everyone was digging into their fourth or fifth bites of the night, one of the chef/servers picked up a microphone and encouraged cheering. "It's Saturday night! How's everyone doing?" People whooped while Instagramming their dishes. (Unlike other restaurants, Travail consciously designed this space for great food photography, with tons of natural light and charging stations). "Let us thank Michael Brown, Bob Gerken, James Winberg, and Kale Thome for creating this temple for us!" Although the sentiment was serious, the overall feel wasn't unlike the thrill of a Chuck E. Cheese.
The dishes and drinks are all listed on chalkboards around the room. The menu items are listed sans description: lamb, tofu, gnocchi. Lest we think it's all fun and games, the food continues to deliver at Travail's usual level of excellence.

The minimally described "egg" was an eggshell packed with creamy scrambled eggs studded with a healthy dose of black truffles.

The pate was more like a slice of mortadella with garlicky little dollops and fried parsley with a crusty slice of bread.

The oxtail was slow-cooked and formed into a little disc, then fried crispy before being doused in a dashi broth table-side. It was the beefiest crust of beef with beef essence we've likely ever tasted.

The cocktails are all priced around $9 to $12. The Mint Condition was $10, a mix of Maker's Mark bourbon poured over pearls of nitro-blasted tartness, garnished with mint dots and a lone green leaf. It tasted bright, braced with smokey caramel back notes from the bourbon.

There are no reservations, so get ready to queue up. They open for business tonight at 5 p.m. We might have to go back for even more delicious food and drinks. Plus we never did figure out what those Nerf guns were for.

4124 Main Street
Robbinsdale
763-535-1131

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