Travail's young chefs launch spirited gastro-workshop

Italian sausage melt

Italian sausage melt

Have you ever seen a balloon made out of mozzarella cheese? House-made mozzarella, that is, pulled by a couple of guys who look young and impish enough to be huffing the contents of the metal tank in the kitchen. After popping and eating that edible inflatable, I watched three chefs hover over another dish that smoked like a witch's cauldron. Two poured ingredients and the third whipped the combination with a hand blender. "The last time I saw that much dry ice," my friend remarked, "a cat was on stage singing 'Memory.'"

Well, remember how Northeast used to be called the new Uptown? And then North was the new Northeast? The arrival of Travail Kitchen and Amusements looks like a sign that Robbinsdale is the latest new affordable, up-and-coming enclave for young, artsy types looking to settle down.

Broadway Avenue is Robbinsdale's oh-fer-cute main street, complete with a small-box hardware store and an old-school butcher shop, Hackenmuellers, whose building has supposedly housed meat cutters since 1882. But downtown Robbinsdale also has a little edge: Cue the roll-by of the kid on the skateboard with a cigarette dangling from his fu manchu.

The neighborhood has turned out to be an ideal spot for chefs James Winberg and Mike Brown, two Porter & Frye alumni, to open their own restaurant. The two most recently drew attention for their innovative gastropub eats and service at Victory 44, and they brought along several of their colleagues, including Bob Gerken and Geoff Hausmann. Winberg and Brown gutted the former home of a nondescript diner and rebuilt it with sweat equity to their custom specifications. They named the place Travail in homage to their royal blue aprons, derived from the French verb travailler, which means "to work." The name is a little confusing—should one pronounce it to rhyme with "pail" or "high"?—but it's certainly apt. The workhorse crew seems hell-bent on serving a blend of down-home and haute cuisine at extremely reasonable prices.

The restaurant's open kitchen has a string of front-row seats at the front counter, and watching the staff work reminded me of being on a culinary pirate ship with all hands on deck (maybe it's all of Hausmann's tattoos). At Travail, as at Victory, the chefs also function as servers, though they still haven't found a name for the dual role. ("Chef servers...chervers?" one of Travail's Facebook posts proposed, earning 10 comments and three "likes.") Everybody—even the dishwasher—is on salary, with wages supplemented by pooled gratuities.

The staffing setup means that diners are being taken care of by employees who are extremely knowledgeable and invested in the restaurant's success. For diners, the experience feels a little like praying directly to God, without having to go through an intermediary. Each dish is delivered with its own novella-length origin story and a pride rarely seen outside of a child's show-and-tell presentation. One night, Brown extolled the virtues of chorizo fat with such fervor that he had to pause to wipe sweat from his brow.

The big finish: Chef Geoff Hausmann with Travail's chocolate "Fire and Ice" dessert

The big finish: Chef Geoff Hausmann with Travail's chocolate "Fire and Ice" dessert

Staffers move from stove to bar to table, rotating between seating customers, busing dishes, prepping, and serving plates, while occasionally being shrouded in a cloud of white, liquid nitrogen-based smoke. "It's like an episode of Iron Chef," one return customer enthused as she waited for a table. Another noted the attractiveness of the staff's hustle and focus. Scanning the chalkboard menu, she tried to use an unfamiliar term in a sentence: "Figlets?" she said. "I'd like to have me some figlets with one of them," pointing to the guys in the kitchen. (The crew might consider stocking a taser among its stash of kitchen gadgets.)

Perhaps the gal was just on a Fender bender, having sloshed through one too many Surlys. The Fender is a house blend of Surly's famous Furious and Bender beers, which creates an intriguing hop-malt balance that will likely be accompanied by a forehead slap: Why didn't I think of that?

Travail's cuisine might be characterized as a mashup of fine dining and pub fare, but be advised that not all of it will work. That mozzarella balloon, for example, wasn't very flavorful and had a rather rubbery texture. But there are so many things to like about the cooking at Travail that it's easy to overlook a few raw potatoes, or bland, watery tomatoes, or doughy-centered doughnut holes.

For starters, this a restaurant that's excited to introduce its customers to new dining experiences. The staff not only makes its own tofu but serves it four ways. Even if sampling curdled soy in its various stages doesn't win you over, you can't help but develop new respect for tofu's versatility. Winberg likens the dish to tasting the same type of wine from different regions—who thought we'd ever see a chef discussing tofu in the same sentence as terroir?

But that's the cool thing about Travail: It appeals as easily to the gourmet as it does to the sports fan in search of game-watching fuel. You can dine on deconstructed rabbit—bites of saddle, sausage, confit, leg, and an eeny-weeny rack of matchstick-size ribs—for roughly the price of a burger. And that burger, by the way, is bar food made better: a tender, steaky patty made from a house-ground blend of sirloin, butter, and rendered beef fat that Brown describes as "meat butter fat pudding." The fish and chips are equally tasty, battered in a thin tempura that crackles like a dried leaf but keeps the beer-brined fish moist and salty.

Travail's charcuterie plate is among the best in the metro, notable for its hearty generosity. The always-changing selection might feature duck liver mousse, an "adult" bologna with the tang of foie gras, or a slab of headcheese that's had its edges crisped on the griddle. And it's a reminder of Travail's ability to run an efficient kitchen, not letting anything go to waste, right down to the pig skull leftover from the headcheese, which doubles as window décor.

Travail's fluid menu means there will always be fresh flavors, but also that some dishes could benefit from another iteration. Occasionally a plate feels like it was conceived out of a refrigerator cleaning. A dish of sous vide octopus with prosciutto, melon, preserved lemon, and black olive, for example, would have likely improved with more judicious editing.

But the majority of the dishes I tried hit the mark of being both interesting and accessible: the perfect gnocchi paired with fatty pork belly, the springy pasta sheet covered in delicate summer vegetables, or those tasty little figlets, which are bites of dried fig, pancetta, and blue cheese that are reminiscent of bacon-wrapped dates.

The most surprising thing about Travail's gourmet plates is that they hardly cost more than the commodity, food-service fare of most greasy spoons and dive bars. The multi-course dessert tasting might be the best example of such value. The seemingly endless parade of sweets appears to be modeled on some sort of promotion where you pay for the ingredients and get the labor free.

For $9, my friends and I feasted on homemade freezer pops made with fresh melon and strawberry, and soup-spoon scoops of frozen limeade foam that dissolved instantly on the tongue and left an odd sting. We then sampled doughnut holes in various flavors along with a trio of ice creams, one of which was frozen into beads inspired by Dippin' Dots. Then came another State Fair riff, a caramel apple fritter, followed by the grand finale. Brown told us it was called "Fire and Ice," as he toasted a swipe of Italian meringue with a construction-grade torch and then poured liquid nitrogen over chocolate mousse with dark chocolate crème anglaise. The dish may have been a little hokey, sure, but we ate it up, both literally and figuratively.

Brown and Winberg, who are 26 and 32, respectively, may not have attracted as much attention as other young chefs in town, but their passionate populism might eventually have a larger impact. In just a few short weeks, they've already managed to win over suburban foodies, beanbag-tossing beer drinkers, the elderly neighborhood lunch crowd—and this critic.