Towards the end of my recent dinner at Travail, while waiting for the next course in what had long before begun to feel like an interminable meal, I began to idly try to come up with versions of book titles to describe the meal so far. Here are the best I could manage: A Series of Unfortunate Courses and A Supposedly Fun Meal I’ll Never Eat Again. No, I really did not enjoy my meal. Yes, I actively disliked it. Before I get into the details of the meal and the very basic reasons for my lack of enjoyment of it, a little bit of background on and description of the restaurant for those who don’t follow these things.
Travail first opened about five years ago, up the street from their current location in one of Minneapolis’ northern suburbs. They were a sensation from the get-go, serving up madcap, mad-scientist multi-course meals that seemed to involve as much whimsy as molecular gastronomic techniques. Or so I gathered from other people’s reviews. We never managed to go as they did not take reservations—a non-starter for us with a nearly-2 hour round-trip and a babysitter on the clock. Somewhere in there they closed, ran a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, and reopened in their current, larger space, to as much acclaim as before, if not more. And the fuss wasn’t just local: Bon Appetit named them one of the Best New Restaurants of 2011 and they were featured on the Food Network after opening in their new incarnation last year.
This year they took the bold step of instituting a ticketed reservation system. You purchase a fixed price ticket well ahead of time, paying on a sliding scale depending on day of week and time of evening of your reservation. The ticket pays for the meal, tax, tip and service charge for the reservation—drinks are extra. Of course, the tickets are non-refundable. This was of no help in getting us there since the prospect of an unscheduled small child illness or a sudden babysitter cancellation are both non-theoretical. Now we’ve never had to actually cancel a reservation for these reasons, and the restaurant says vaguely that they will work with people, but a $72 bet is a big one (that’s the cheapest version, I think—if you dine late in the middle of the week). So it seemed like Travail would continue to be something I would read and wonder about but not actually experience. But when our summer plans featured my returning alone to Minnesota, while the missus and boys stayed on in Los Angeles for another two weeks, an opportunity presented itself. And last week I drove up to Robbinsdale for a 8.15 reservation on a weeknight.
Eating alone at Travail is not such a big deal as almost all tables are in a communal format. I was seated at a long table with two older women and we chatted throughout the meal. They didn’t care for the food very much more than me, by the way, but they did enjoy the atmosphere more. And let me describe that atmosphere a bit more before getting to the food as it’s a very big part of the Travail experience (and indeed after my meal I’m tempted to say it’s most of the Travail experience).
It’s a large, attractive space, open and festooned with a lot of wood and metal. They have an open kitchen so you get to see (and hear) upfront the other thing that’s so novel about Travail: they have a large number of chefs who work in a horizontal relationship, serving, cleaning and cooking.
As far as I could make out, each chef does their own dish which gets plugged into the night’s tasting menu. (The restaurant serves only a tasting menu, and I’m not sure how often it changes: the printout I received is titled “Tasting Experience Summer 2015.) So, you get to see a lot of chefs doing their work but you also get to hear them: they’re loud and they’re very much meant to be seen and heard being loud: there’s a lot of screaming and calling across the room, boisterous communal drinking of beer from a boot, singing along and dancing with the loud music (very loud) playing in the restaurant etc.; they emerge on a regular basis from the kitchen to theatrically serve some dishes (see alongside, for example); and at the end of our meal we had to traipse through the kitchen while the chefs “constructed” our dessert one by one (see the next picture).
It’s an interactive meal in more than one sense and how much you enjoy this aspect of it will depend on how much this kind of thing appeals to you. I have to admit—and no one who knows me well will be surprised to read this—that I am not temperamentally disposed towards it. And especially not when it comes, as it does at Travail, with a very strong frat-boy vibe. This is not a lazy slam on my part, by the way—the chef-owners are on record saying that that’s the atmosphere they seek to evoke: “fine dining frat“. And they certainly succeed: imagine an entire year of Saturday Night Live with nothing but Chris Farley sketches and you’d have a pretty good analogy for what it began to feel like for me fairly early on. I found it increasingly wearying as the evening went on, and I didn’t find it particularly charming to begin with. (I am not sure, by the way, that there were any women in the kitchen that night—I don’t know how representative that is.)
You can certainly say that all this biases me against the restaurant. But I would have been perfectly willing to overlook this (prominent) aspect of the meal if the food I was served was good. And, on the whole, it was very far from good. There were some things that were good but they were few and far between in a meal that lasted more than two hours and featured almost 20 “courses”; and some things were actively bad. Specific descriptions of each course, and my feelings about them, are in the captions to the slideshow below but let me first describe what I saw as global problems:
- There were a large number of courses and they did not really make sense as a progression of flavours or textures. The menu was subdivided into the following categories: “Park”, “Forest”, “Ocean”, “Garden”, “Ballpark”, “BBQ” and “Fair”. From a point of view of flavour, however, many dishes could have been moved around fairly randomly and it wouldn’t have made a difference. Indeed, I realize now as I’m looking closely at the printed menu I received at the end of the meal, that our table did not receive the courses in the printed order. Would that have made a difference? Frankly, I don’t think so: the organization of the menu seems driven by high concepts that don’t seem to derive from the food.
- Within individual courses, as well, the logic often seemed more visual than developed from flavour. Every dish looked very good; many had components that did not add up.
- The technical whiz-bangery seemed in almost every case to be for its own sake: it didn’t result in things that tasted good and sometimes was a bit of a problem. An example of the first was the course titled “”Bomb” which featured a “raw egg” that was made from orange bell peppers, tomato and cucumber. Yes, they made a perfect visual replica of a raw egg from ingredients that weren’t eggs but when you ate it it had all the charm of biting into a raw orange bell pepper. An example of the second was the “Moon Rock”, a dry-ice frozen “root beer float” that was a lot of fun to eat (who doesn’t like to blow dry ice “smoke” out of their nose?) but which “burnt” my neighbour’s tongue so that she couldn’t fully enjoy the remaining courses.
More on all this below. Here now is what I ate (presented in the order received and not in the order in the printed menu). Click on an image to launch a slideshow with detailed captions.
So there you have it. As I noted in the captions this is the actual order in which we got the courses listed on the menu (see below): 1, 2, 3, 4, 11, 5, 6, 7, 12, 9, 8, 10, 16, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19. I didn’t photograph the “Moon Rock” which was served after the pork belly as listed. I’m not sure but I suspect the order was altered because of the mode of presentation of so many of the dishes. Given that different tables were on different timelines based on seating time it was probably just easier to have the brat conga line go through once than at different points, for example. This also suggests, of course, that the order of courses is not really important to the restaurant.
In any case, it wasn’t just the sequencing but the actual execution on a number of dishes that was a problem. Some things were just done badly: spongy chicken, overly acidic dressings, burnt garlic. And there were just too many “high concept” dishes where the actual flavour seemed to be an afterthought anyway. This is not, I hasten to add, because of the techniques per se—my favourite restaurant in the cities by a country mile is Piccolo and Doug Flicker and co. spherify and compress with the best of them. It seemed to me that at Travail the emphasis is on rendering the food spectacular at the level of presentation. It’s as though every chef is tasked primarily with coming up with something that would be a cool idea and then all of those are strung into a menu, which may or may not make sense as a sequence (and they don’t seem particularly bound by the sequence anyway). In other words, it’s not that the theater (whatever you make of it) of the rest of the meal detracts from the food, it’s that the food seems to be primarily part of the theater. Complaining about what it tasted like may even be sort of besides the point.
It should, of course, be kept in mind that this was one meal. And my view of the food (in general) is very much an outlier. I can’t imagine, however, that the food I was served would have garnered some of the rave reviews I’ve seen. It may be this was an aberration and you should certainly see this as only a single meal report—though the menu does seem to be for the season and not just the night. That said, my account of the restaurant’s atmosphere/vibe seems to be quite representative and so this may at least help you decide if you want that experience (certainly, many others in the restaurant seemed to be enjoying it and also presumably the food—though my table-mates did not).
As I didn’t have anything to drink, I had nothing further to pay at the end of my meal and just got up and left after the last course. I won’t be back. And I certainly won’t recommend it to anyone whose interests are largely gastronomic in nature. The restaurant will somehow have to find a way to carry on without my key endorsement. Whatever will they do?