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UMAMI, a first look at Travail's pop-up; Plus, an update on the Kickstarter

UMAMI, a first look at Travail's pop-up; Plus, an update on the Kickstarter
Joy Summers

Since shuttering the original Travail, co-owners Mike Brown, Bob Gerken, and James Winberg haven't stopped moving. They've been hosting roving pop-up dinners as fundraisers for a new Travail restaurant space, which will include a small plate and cocktail bar under the name Rookery. The newest pop-up, UMAMI by Travail, opened last night in North Minneapolis, and something tells me this pop-up might be sticking around for a while.

See also:

Prevail Travail! The gastro-wunderkinds take to Kickstarter, plus more details on their next pop-up

Ready and waiting
Ready and waiting
Joy Summers

The space for UMAMI sits in the shadow of a Little Caesar's Pizza off Broadway and North Bryant (904 West Broadway). The Travail team has transformed the shell of a space into a guerrilla art styled dining room. The restaurant that had been here before auctioned off its kitchen equipment, which Travail bid on and won, and with breathtaking quickness, they then wrangled all the permits and an all-important liquor license. The idea for Umami came to them in August, and last Monday the health inspector came to give them the green light.


As slapdash as that preparation may sound, the opening night of UMAMI went off without a hitch. The restaurant is easy to get to, just a couple of blocks off the Interstate 94 exit, minutes from downtown. A chalkboard sign directed diners to the front door. At the open kitchen, the chefs worked furiously plating dishes on long planks of wood. An arching cherry-blossom tree art installation stretched across the wall above them. 

Tables were pushed together into long communal tables. In the back corner sat a giant tank of liquid nitrogen. Stevie Wonder and Jamiroquai were jamming and some of our seat neighbors suggested some poppy karaoke. We enthusiastically agreed because the evening already felt like a raucous dinner party. Beer, wine and sake were served. 

Light and lovely first bites
Light and lovely first bites
Joy Summers

When it came time to eat, that thrill of a Travail tasting menu tickled the base of our stomachs before we even tasted the first spoonful. Delicate scallops were topped with a sliver of beef tenderloin and a green gelee. Creamy, bright herbal flavors washed over the palate. The next bite was a crispy, crunchy, chewy fresh spring roll topped with mild sashimi.

Dumplings with chicharron garnish
Dumplings with chicharron garnish
Joy Summers

Soon came dumplings, a pork shumai and little shrimp pockets, "Those are the ones shaped like an envelope," explained Chef James Winberg. They were garnished with pork cracklings. "Cheech!" our neighbor said, greeting the chicharron with an uncontainable glee.

Alongside the dumplings we were served a long board with homemade pickles, wonderfully pungent kimchee, pickled bitter melon, daikon radish, and darling little mushrooms.  

Jars of congee, a rice porridge traditionally served for breakfast, were served with all kinds of sweet and savory mix-ins: Orange supremes, candied ginger, fried lotus root, edamame, finely diced jalapenos and more.

Ramen bathed in broth
Ramen bathed in broth
Joy Summers

The dishes came with marked precision for a first night. The dry style house-made ramen noodles were good, but when paired with the succulent pork belly and doused in broth, they were exactly the slurpable dish we'd been waiting for at this dinner. The yakitori was staked with sausages, tender summer squash, and a proper pope's nose bit of charred chicken.

Bitchin' bulgogi
Bitchin' bulgogi
Joy Summers

The final savory dish was a take on Korean barbecued short ribs. They were cut fatter than traditionally served and might have been the crowning jewel of the night. Tender cuts glistened with a mahogany, subtly sweet sauce. Perfectly portioned, they were served on a large plate with a branch of rosemary over smoldering charcoal.

Not every dish was a runaway success, it was the first pass after all, but once you're in it's hard to fight the tide of good times washing over you.

Not your average table-side service
Not your average table-side service
Joy Summers

If you missed the full tasting menu tickets -- currently they are sold out through September 28 -- don't worry, every night a collection of items are affordably priced for take-out. More tickets will be released next week. The tasting menu is subject to change, and as with all things Travailian, you've got to buy the ticket, take the ride, and trust they know where to steer you.

As for the fund-raising component of UMAMI, another fundraiser, the Travail Kickstarter campaign launched earlier this month, has taken almost all of the pressure off of pop-up dinner ticket sales. At last count their Kickstarter funding had brought them over $225,000. That's 301% of their original goal.

We spoke with chef/owner Mike Brown after they blew past their first goal on the first day of the campaign. He was overwhelmed by the response and admitted that he and the other guys might have even teared up a bit. "I have never felt so supported in all my life," he said.

They're still deciding what to do with the extra cash. They've hardly had time to stop running, let alone sit and contemplate what's next. Likely, they'll invest in modern cuisine toys like an anti-griddle, which flash-freezes food, or maybe they'll invest in some health insurance. The idea of keeping UMAMI open has been floated as well. The space is certainly easy to get to, tons of parking is available in the nearby lot, and there is a demonstrable hunger for their Asian-inspired comfort food. Stay up to date on UMAMI by visiting the Travail Facebook page.

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