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