"They're not tapas," insists Mike Brown, chef and co-owner of Robbinsdale's latest addition, the revival of Travail and its a la carte counterpart, the Rookery. "That word has really been bastardized. We needed something new to describe what we're doing here so we came up with microplates."
These are indeed diminutive dishes: several nibbles of medium-rare ribeye perched on a searingly hot rock; a single, perfectly scrambled egg served in its shell; a strip of cured salmon curled up in a spoon with pearls of roe. But for this meal of many bites, you need to have stamina. When he presented our itemized check at the end of the night, which was roughly the length of a small child, our chef-server congratulated us, remarking that the dinner was "a pretty gnarly endeavor." While we might not have chosen those exact words to describe it, from the moment you are seated at the new Travail and the Rookery, you invite a flurry of personality, performance, information, art, and science to your communal table — not to mention some of the most surprising and sometimes overwhelming food and drink you're likely to have in the Twin Cities. We aren't afraid to gush. We defy anyone to eat here and leave unimpressed.
Following an astonishingly successful Kickstarter campaign to finance their new building, Brown and his kitchen comrades, fellow owners Bob Gerken and James Winberg, lost no time in digging into the project. "We wanted to keep the set menu on the Travail side for people who just want to buckle up, sit back, and enjoy the ride," says Brown. To that end, they offer a 10-course set tasting menu (that's 10 main courses, but when you factor in intermezzos, amuse bouches, and dessert flights, it's closer to two dozen plates) with optional wine pairings. Just on the other side of the room, they created the Rookery to be more of a choose-your-own adventure experience, where a diner could order a few individual plates and a drink or do a "bite flight" of 11 microplates for $30.
Though they surpassed their $75,000 Kickstarter goal in a matter of hours, ultimately raising more than $255,000, Brown and Gerken say the build-out still required an immense amount of sweat equity from the staff. "We didn't get to menu planning and developing the cocktails for a while because we were literally putting up walls and tiling tabletops," says Gerken. "In order for us to keep this restaurant truly ours, we have to be very hands-on." The cocktails Gerken mentioned are a big part of what makes the Rookery experience so exciting. The old Travail served only beer and wine, but now with a full liquor license, a prep line full of fresh fruits and vegetables, and access to all kinds of crazy carbonating and injecting tools, Gerken is diving headlong into the art of drink-making. "I loved studying the history," says Gerken. "I didn't realize that the cocktail is really an American invention." In the process he says he's realized how important the vessel is to the full experience of a drink and has even sourced vintage and specialty glassware to help elevate his cocktails. Etched Champagne coupes are used to serve the Violette Pilot, a floral, candy-flavored, granita-like gin cocktail. The frothy, egg white-topped Pisco the Night Away, garnished with a homemade apricot and black pepper fruit leather, is poured neatly into a genuine Glencairn glass, the shape usually reserved for swilling a fine single-malt. The Ron Burgundy, a Scotch-based drink served under a dome of cherry tobacco smoke, just comes in the familiar lowball glass, but it does magically evoke the image of many leather-bound books.
In the animal kingdom, a rookery is a sort of informal colony, a place where gregarious animals — usually birds — come together to nest and breed. It aptly describes the nature of the seemingly chaotic open kitchen at the Rookery restaurant, which is like an intellectual salon for food nerds, a place for them to come together and breed new ideas. "Rules are really stressed in the world of restaurants," says Brown. "You do need to be organized to make things work, but we are about ideas. Anyone can come to the group with any out-there seed of an idea and we all pile on. There is really an understanding that collaboration makes the dish better."
The chalkboard menus here list each item starkly: marrow, sunchoke, garden, hamachi. There's no telling what form any of those ingredients will take or what other components will be underneath or on top of them. Among the many bites we sampled, we marveled most at the tiny square of medium-rare lamb, perfectly seasoned and served with golden layered potato pave and a pungent chimichurri; the brandade perfected with a chunky and creamy (rather than pasty, as it so often is) salt cod inside a crispy fritter; tangy hearts of palm in a bowl of delicate shrimp bisque; a lollipop of liver mousse inside a chocolate-fruit coating that was like a bite of decadent meat cheesecake; sinfully salty French fries saddled up alongside a dollop of crème fraîche and Osetra caviar; a chicharon of shrimp splayed and topped with bits of bacon, jalapeño, briny sea beans, and micro cilantro; shaved carrots and carefully placed leaves of herbs on a bed of black garlic "dirt," sprayed at the last second with essential oil "fertilizer"; leeks made three ways and served with teardrops of leek oil encapsulated in isomalt, which won't melt in water, but dissolves as soon as it hits your tongue; and finally, speaking of tongue, the tender beef tongue slider, with discs of crispy radish. Only a few bites garnered less-than-satisfactory reviews. The regular burger was far too salty, and the pineapple dessert, with its marbles of tapioca and strangely watery finish, did not appeal on the same level as say, the sandwich of chocolate-covered chocolate chip cookies with salted caramel cream cheese.
There is so much to take in, so much detail and ephemera and visual brilliance, it practically leaves you breathless, which is absolutely the goal here. "I think it's really about trying to transport people," says Brown. "When someone closes their eyes and they are kind of out of their body with the first taste of something and they are trying to place it, that's really the experience we are aiming for." With all the infusions, shaved truffles, and clouds of billowing liquid nitrogen they're surrounded by day after day, you start to wonder if the Travail and Rookery chefs ever get a chance to turn off their mile-a-minute, Willy Wonka-esque brains and just make a regular plate of food.
"Honestly? When I'm cooking at home, it's as simple as it gets," says Brown. "I'll make some pasta or grill a piece of meat... well, I'll marinate it for a couple days beforehand and then I'll roast it on a sword in this pit I have in my backyard."
Chefs: They're just like us.