Tongue! Bye-Bye Fried Chicken & Cru! Molecular Gastronomy Man-Cave!

Lots to report in the world of food:

First, we’re sending the food issue I’ve been working on for two years to the printer today. If you liked my burger cover of two years ago, or my pizza personality cover from last summer, get ready to have your world rocked. So proud. Best thing I’ve done in years. Details as soon as it hits the newsstands…

Second: There’s really good tongue to be had in St. Paul! No, get your mind out of the gutter. I mean the deli kind—smoked beef tongue, at the St. Paul Cheese Shop. The shop’s manager, Benjamin Roberts, is working with Lorentz meats to bring back what was once one of the world’s most prized foods. I stopped in late last week to try it out: Yum. Tender like head cheese, subtle and light like veal, as a sandwich it paired perfectly with the Cheese Shop’s house-made mustard, but would make a spectacular first course for a fancy dinner party too—I’m picturing slices sort of twirled into a cone on a plate with a bit of mache or another herb and mustard. If you’re a fan of classic delicatessen, or a nose-to-tail adventurer, I say run, don’t walk, to St. Paul.

Third: I heard from Derrick Williams, the former chef of Derrick’s Southern Style BBQ on 38th and Chicago. Yup, former. Man oh man do soul food places in Minnesota have a hard row to hoe. So, our brief window for great fried chicken and knee-weakening black-eyed peas has closed. Blink and you missed it. Fans of Derrick’s can catch him in Maplewood Community Center at the Suds, Sauce, and Soul event June 11, 2010 (6-10 p.m.). Admission is free. I feel a little sad about all of this. It’s one thing for a restaurant to fail, but another when it doesn’t even get to really start.

Fourth: More sadness. Restaurant Cru, the far-northern suburbs’ farm-driven restaurant, is closing June 5. It will be reopened as Bricks’ Pub. Oh well, I guess the question about whether the ex-urbs could support that level of dining has been answered. Sad.

Fifth: Let’s stop being so sad, because details about the Victory 44 offshoot have started to emerge. I spoke to James Winberg today and got the inside-scoop on the molecular gastronomy man-cave coming to Robbinsdale soon. Why do I call it a molecular gastronomy man-cave? I don’t know. Just a feeling I have. What would you call a restaurant with half a dozen male cooks, eight local beers on tap, no servers, darts, shuffleboard, and liquid nitrogen?

The owners are going to call it “Travail Kitchen & Amusements.” It’s going into downtown Robbydale at 4154 West Broadway, in the former Talula’s Café space, across from one of my favorite old-school butcher shops in the Twin Cities, Hackenmueller’s. Currently the restaurant is undergoing a light remodel to open up the kitchen so that diners can see the cooks (and the cooks can see their tables). Yes: No servers, just like Victory 44! Owner James Winberg, late of Victory 44, tells me this is a model I better get used to: “It’s really the only good way to do business in a small space, otherwise the amount you’re spending on labor and taxes makes it impossible for an owner/chef to make a living wage. And it’s more fun this way. You create a completely different dynamic with the customers when they’re talking to the person who’s cooking, and watching them cook.”

I can attest to this: If there’s a delayed entrée and you’re staring at your server texting on her phone you start with impatient and slowly grow angry, but if there’s a delayed entrée and you’re watching your cook/server running like heck to get it, you feel sympathy. Winberg wouldn’t tell me much about the menu, per se, except that there will be local farmers involved, decorative but also useful baskets of produce in sight that they’ll be cooking from, and agar-agar and liquid nitrogen in the kitchen.

“So, molecular gastronomy?” I asked.

“If you want to call it that,” said Winberg.

“What do you want to call it?” I parried.

“I call it just another kitchen tool, and we all know how to use it. It’s just standard cooking these days. Just another way to change texture.”

Okay, if you insist, chef.

“Travail, it’s going to be just like a neighborhood pub, but more refined. There will be an eating bar right in front of the kitchen, and you’ll be able to reach out and high-five a cook. It’s all about interaction, everyone being involved.”

I don’t know. I don’t particularly high-five anyone except toddlers, so, we’ll see. Different strokes for different folks. If you’re the sort of person who likes to high-five cooks, this high-fiving will commence… sooner or later. Winberg tells me their crucial first step is to get beer and wine license approval; their hearing is scheduled for June 15. After that it’s all licensing. Winberg says they’re hoping for an early July opening, and if that comes to pass I will be mighty impressed with the efficiency of Robbinsdale. Either way, can’t wait for this particular man-cave to open!

It seems like the Twin Cities is, finally, coming back from the great recession in interesting ways: Piccolo, Haute Dish, Chef Shack, Victory 44, Travail, and even the cupcake bakery Cake Eater all seem to be working from a place that feels very exciting to this critic, a place that seems very rock-and-roll, DIY, no-rules, Minnesota-proud but with international ambitions and horizons. Good for all of them. And good for all of Minnesota for supporting them!

And that’s all I got. Happy June everyone!

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