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Labor of Love

Too many chefs is a recipe for success at the new Travail

Labor of Love
Photo by Todd Buchanan

I’ve always said that the whole point of the scratch-cooking, local movement is to get us to eat like our great-grandparents once did, but I never thought I’d see that sentiment made flesh as shockingly as I did recently at Travail in Robbinsdale. ¶ Scene: a restaurant like a rough-hewn bar, with giant chalkboards as decoration—chalkboards marked simply “fried chicken: $8,” “tomato salad: $7.” Back behind the line of the open kitchen is a group of cooks who look like members of a rock band: tattooed, scruffy hipsters given to high-fiving one another and whooping with excitement. ¶ Yet, in the dining room, there are several tables of polite, retired women with hair carefully set. They peer over their bifocals as a cook—there are no servers here, just cooks who both cook and take orders—explains that the fried chicken is deboned, pressed together, filled with a fresh herb paste, cooked sous vide (in a vacuum-sealed bag), then portioned, fried in a buttermilk-baking-powder-soda-water batter, paired with compressed melon and leek oil, and…. And then the fried chicken comes out. It’s exquisitely prepared, perfectly crispy, tender as cake. It costs $8. The cooks grin with pride as the tables ooh and aah, the polite women delight because the food is soul-satisfyingly splendid, and there’s so much joy you half expect everyone in the room to join hands and start singing “It’s a Small World After All.” ¶ Travail was opened in late July by cooking partners and co-owners Mike Brown and James Winberg, both Minnesota natives with serious cooking credentials. (Brown cooked at Binkley’s in Arizona, Winberg at the Napa Valley bistro Bouchon. The two met at Porter & Frye.) They are joined by chefs recruited from both in and out of town, all of whom work 70- to 80-hour weeks trying to one-up each other. The enthusiasm the chefs radiate as they trot plates to the tables makes you grin.

So do the scallops, exquisitely seared and paired with an edamame purée, edamame beans, braised kohlrabi, pickled kohlrabi, and a bit of braised enoki mushroom. It’s a sea-sweet-and-vinegar combination that is just out-of-the-box enough to fascinate. Other joys include the desserts that chefs ferry to the table course after course after course—a tri-level, semi-frozen grape, strawberry, and melon-fruit soda; an assemblage of chocolate mousse and Italian meringue; a melon-fruit soup.

It’s hard to believe all those dessert courses were included in the single $8 price, but this is another facet of the food revolution I didn’t see coming: When young chefs buy direct from farmers and know all the tricks of a production kitchen, they become as generous as a great-grandma at Thanksgiving. “You have to be losing money on the desserts,” I said to co-owner Brown when we talked on the phone.

“No. Do you know how many portions of chocolate mousse I can get out of five ounces of good chocolate?” he replied. “The experience doesn’t always correlate to the food costs.”


Young chefs cooking their hearts out and not a server in sight: The enthusiasm is thrilling.


Ideal Meal: Charcuterie, soup, scallops, dessert. Tip: Don’t avoid simple sounding dishes like “tomato salad,” they’re often fabulous. Hours: Noon to midnight Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday Prices: Everything is under $14. Spend $12 for a filling lunch, $20 for a nice dinner; more if you’re in the mood to indulge in cooking fun and adventure. Address: Travail, 4154 W. Broadway Ave., Robbinsdale, 763-535-1131

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

Old to new | New to old
Sep 17, 2010 01:37 am
 Posted by  pH

Yay! More great restaurants to go to. Travail is going on the to-do list.

Sep 17, 2010 10:24 am
 Posted by  jab

I've eaten at Travail at least a dozen times since they've opened and can't stop telling people about it. It never disappoints! The article doesn't mention the super affordable wine list and the Surly beer on tap...

Sep 17, 2010 05:19 pm
 Posted by  safety1st

2 weeks ago Karen & I flew from Columbus Ohio for "lunch" at our nephew Michael's (& business partner James')new restaurant. We spent two and a half hours partaking of the best food we have eaten in our 38 years together. We ate "things" I would never have imagined eating, presented by the whole gang of guys and Matie,I admit they may look like "members of a rock band", but are much nicer :o)
So back to the food, it was AMAZING, and this from a guy who lived in China for 7 months. Even after Michael described them and how they were cooked I had no idea what the majority of the courses were. Yes I did recognize the octopus, has tentacles, beef, although I'm a medium guy, so eating red meat was different. The desserts were really tasty as were the scallops and everything else that was set infront of us. I couldn't tell you what to order BUT my suggestion is ask your chef to fix something that will surprise you.

Sep 19, 2010 06:02 pm
 Posted by  KG

Travail is beyond! Words here cannot do it justice - even our eight year-old son loves the charcuterie. It's the latest reason to love Robbinsdale, and it'll keep us in the neighborhood for future date nights!

Sep 21, 2010 10:23 am
 Posted by  costendorf

My wife and I currently live in Robbinsdale and we can't say enough good things about Travail. Groupon man Josh Stevens has been staying with us and we pulled him to the restaurant last night. He was so amazed by the preparation, atmosphere, presentation & explosive flavors of Travail that he requested to meet the owners.

The chalked food list is written so simple, yet the pallet so complex. It warms me to see that only one of the beers on tap is not local. The tattooed chefs are the perfect match for such a revolutionary dining experience.

New to the menu is the chicken pot-pie which is a deconstructed, perfectly mastered, impressionistic art form. It is a foodie masterpiece only a grandmother could truly appreciate.

Other items include the Broadway Burger that I requested be renamed the "Hedonism Burger". Don't ask for the nutrition facts on this baby, just eat.

As mentioned in the review, the scallops are so buttery and delicate, you will forget you are in Minnesota. If you need to be reminded, the new s'mores desert will put you back in your place with hand selected ingredients served in a martini glass that is set upon smoldering hickory chips to bring you back to the traditional camp fires of the north woods.

In all, the experience is nothing short of joyous; affordable prices, incredible food, local beers, good wine selection, all served by the hands that prepared it... all to remind us that there's no place like home.

Sep 28, 2010 03:30 pm
 Posted by  KRISAUNT

We were at Travail with my nephew and his Katy for the "pig feed". I thought we were on Top Chef!!! We will be back again and again - great food, great service and great chefs. Hats off to everyone.

Being an original Northsider, it is wonderful to see this class of a restaurant with such a casual setting in the old neighborhood.

Oct 30, 2010 05:00 pm
 Posted by  PB

I hate to be the only negative voice here, but my husband and I had a quite a bad experience at Travail during our recent visit. We wait over 90 minutes for a table, which we actually expected - but were distressed to see others who showed up long after we did being seated long before us. Their system for taking names and seating seemed chaotic. The chefs were mad at work in the kitchen, but due to what seemed like a problem with the ventilation system, the air was thick with greasy smelling smoke. (we took this unpleasant smell home with us and had to dry clean the clothing we had been wearing).
We tried 8 different items, and nearly every one had an issue, whether it be too much salt (and we are not shy about using salt), undercooking (chicken!), or overall excessive richness. I do admire the enthusiasm, creativity and energy of the owners, and I would normally give a restaurant a second chance, but we are not inclined to return.

Jan 15, 2011 04:50 pm
 Posted by  mp

I had read all the great comments about this restaurant. Waited for a big occasion and we all met there at 5:00 (they don't 'do' reservations) on a Friday to celebrate a friend's birthday. From the minute we walked into the restaurant - the people who worked there had an attitude. We had 5 people coming - none of their tables were set for more than 4. The music was so loud that we had to shout in the employee's ear to see if it was okay to move a 2 top along with a 4 top. They weren't thrilled but said okay. As we got our drinks and tried to orient ourselves to the black boards we realized that we couldn't hear each other talk! One of our group politely asked if they might turn down the music - just a bit. They said 'no'. We decided to cut our losses. The way people treat you is far more important than whatever they could make in the kitchen. Don't know if all the hype has gone to Travail's head but there is a lovely, family owned Italian restaurant right next door which served great food and made the whole evening super fun - Donna Roasas. Travail needs a reality check!

Oct 28, 2011 11:42 am
 Posted by  nuccio

Innovative and attractive presentation but the food is bland and some of it is simply not cooked well. The risotto was bad and a good risotto is not hard to make. But what really disturbs is the noise level. It is deafening. I couldn't hear the explanation of the dishes and couldn't have a conversation with my family. I, like another who posted here, asked that they turn it down just a notch and they refused in a rude way. These boys have a lot to learn. Take your business to someone who deserves it.

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