I’m all about budget-friendly eats: $5 happy hour appetizers, two-for-one taco Tuesdays, weeknight date specials. While I believe there's a time and a place for splurging, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what that time and place actually is.
Obviously, my cheapskate self is not the target market for Travail's 20-plus course tasting menu, which, with tax and tip, will set you back more than $100 for a 5 p.m. Thursday seating (8 p.m. and weekend slots cost even more).
But somehow my friend Chad, who does not share my obsessively frugal sensibilities, cajoled me into joining him as his date at a friend's birthday dinner. "It's an experience!" he kept telling me in the months leading up to our ticketed reservation. A glimpse through Travail's website, which prominently features steaming vats of liquid nitrogen, confirms that certainly is the case.
But I remained skeptical: Was this really an experience worth the hefty price tag?
When the date and time arrived, I found myself wandering around downtown Robbinsdale in an increasing state of frustration -- of course, Travail doesn’t sport a sign, which both gives it an air of exclusivity and strikes fear into the heart of a penny pincher terrified of missing her reservation. (As the website ominously warns: “Your seats will be given away 15 minutes after your reservation time and we will not be able to refund your purchase.”)
Eventually I figured it out -- downtown Robbinsdale isn’t all that expansive -- and found myself in what's probably the world’s only fancy restaurant whose decor scheme consists mainly of carnival-sized stuffed animals dangling from the rafters.
Our meal began with a lineup of diminutive appetizers: tiny crisp cones filled with salmon, cherries coated in foie gras, delicate crab spring rolls. The twist? Each precisely prepared bite was served perched on a tree branch centerpiece.
My thrifty heart lurched. I had paid $100 to eat off of yard waste.
The next few courses were served on conventional dinnerware -- and each was a delight. I was enchanted by a colorful spread of winter vegetables and dill ricotta, the thinly sliced beets, carrot, and rutabaga arranged into a work of edible art. An oyster chowder topped with a popover evoked memories of a blissful trip to New England, and a truffle-spiked arancini was a deep-fried wonder.
I was less impressed by the pieces of cured pork served dangling from overhead meat hooks -- impersonating a walleye during fishing opener has never been a particular goal of mine. When a pair of photo-perfect roasted chickens was presented to our table with a theatrical flourish and the assurance that they had been roasted “especially for us,” I had a Portlandia-inspired urge to ask what their names were.
The stagecraft wasn’t over yet: A few courses later, a chef wheeled out a fierce-looking appliance and proceeded to make gravy, tableside, from crushed chicken bones. As my mother would say, in a passive-aggressive tone honed by her decades in Minnesota, it all seemed like a bit much.
But when I tasted that gravy, served over a meltingly tender piece of roasted chicken, it suddenly made sense. The joke about how everything tastes like chicken didn’t apply: This was chicken that tasted intensely like chicken, with a rich depth of flavor that shocked my taste buds. It was poultry worthy of the pageantry.
By the time we got to the final palate-cleanser -- a flash-frozen lollipop of passion fruit fluff, which actually seemed liked a pretty good use of liquid nitrogen -- the fact that we were also offered the opportunity to purchase a sexy chefs calendar seemed perfectly normal (and the birthday girl took them up on it).
As I sampled my way through the dessert spread that materialized on our table -- a tiny chocolate sandwich cookie, a miniature square of gooey butter cake, an ethereal chocolate mousse garnished with blood orange -- I realized what my $100 had purchased. Incredible food, obviously: The inventiveness and execution is top-notch, and oysters, foie gras, and truffles don’t come cheap.
But the tasting menu at Travail is more than just the sum of all those meticulously prepared courses. If you can suspend your disbelief and check your skepticism, it offers the same magic as a Broadway production or a visit to Disney World. It’s a chance to escape the reality of the everyday, and to allow yourself to disappear, however briefly, into the spectacle.
That’s an experience I’m willing to pay for.