Following the Trail of Travail: Green Reinvention in Robbinsdale

Michael Anschel. Photo by Hubert Bonnet

Michael Anschel. Photo by Hubert Bonnet


Not too long ago, an initial dining experience at Travail was a cavalcade of arrested expectations. I was in Robbinsdale, a cozy community with a gem of a butcher shop and adorable main street, which is not my usual location for a boundary-pushing dining experience. The new restaurant’s chefs didn’t seem to believe in servers, which was a theory that was put into practice as the fellows in the kitchen were whipping together dishes and carrying them out to diners. Why was there no hostess? Where do I sit? Is it okay to ask a chef for a beer without offering him one in return?

The menu included some sandwiches; a pastrami for $9.00 sounded good, but they also had an incredibly affordable tasting menu that I couldn’t resist as I saw trays of charcuterie carried past me like bobbing displays of meat jewels. Sandwiches and a tasting menu? I was dubious until it arrived. What was happening inside my mouth was nothing quaint or adorable. There were textures, aromas, flavors that I felt like someone slipped me some hallucinogenics. Was I actually tasting a smell? Did that flavor have a color? Am I seriously in Robbinsdale?

It’s something to look back at the history of Travail and realize that they opened just a couple of years ago. In that time, the main men of Travail have become fixtures in the local dining scene and darlings on a national level. Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appetit Magazine named Travail Kitchen and Amusements one of the Best New Restaurants enthusing that they boasted, “Chefs who cook like a band making its first album, i.e., without limits.”

Roulade of Skate and summer sausage, Israeli couscous, mandarin orange, fennel. Photo by Austin Lindstrom

Roulade of Skate and summer sausage, Israeli couscous, mandarin orange, fennel. Photo by Austin Lindstrom

At this moment, they’re a band that has gone back into the studio to contemplate that all-important sophomore outing. And, like a band (and because they clearly can’t sit still), Bob Gerken, James Winberg, Kale Thome, and Mike Brown have also created two entirely new restaurants in the meanwhile that have been popping up around town, Pig Ate My Pizza and Umami. Now, they’re set to reveal their new baby, Travail and The Rookery, a collaboration of artists that transcends the food world.

They decided to briefly shutter the original location, a cozy spot in downtown Robbinsdale.  After rearranging furniture into long, communal tables and nailing some reclaimed wood here and there, it was reopened as Pig Ate My Pizza. Inside, there are decadent dishes like house-made tater tots of fluffy potato and bacon called Hog Tots and a pizza with an herby brioche crust topped with unctuous pork delights known as the Piggy Pie. Additionally, there are the usual theatrics including a smoked pizza served under glass that is presented with a flourish as it’s uncovered and the woody perfume is released to beckon the nasal cavity and tongue.

They then moved to a new part of town, North Minneapolis. Off Broadway Avenue, in an old fried chicken spot, they opened the new Umami, now operating as Umami Dim Sum. The pop-up’s space is filled with a guerrilla art theme with cherry branches painted on the walls and room for an enormous liquid nitrogen container (because flash-freezing is never far away in the midst of a Travailian meal).  Wood flooring was transformed into long, communal table tops. Mason jars work as glassware.

House made Tofu, black morel mushroom, fava bean & puree, black olive tapenade, baby beets, lemon foam. Photo by Austin Lindstrom

House made Tofu, black morel mushroom, fava bean & puree, black olive tapenade, baby beets, lemon foam. Photo by Austin Lindstrom

In these two endeavors, it is clear that their style of taking expectation and turning them on their ears isn’t limited only to what is on the plate (or in their case, the occasional serving plank). The chef/owners aren’t concerned with just changing perceptions. They clearly care about green construction, making the most out of natural elements and affecting the way diners experience their dinners through design (these are the guys that created both a meat umbrella and a foie gras tree). But, they were also ready to do a little growing up.

Their urban foraging for furniture and aesthetic pieces has worked incredibly well for both Pig Ate My Pizza and Umami. And, they clearly possess great ingenuity. Take those elements and add them to their sophomore status and the come to the conclusion that the next evolution of Travail Kitchen and Amusements (with their cocktail and small plates space, The Rookery) would require a touch of refinement. The next step would involve entirely new construction. For once, they wouldn’t be able to do everything themselves. So, they found a partner for the new project in Otogawa-Anschel Design + Build.

Known for their eco-friendly building, Otogawa-Anschel has a lot in common with the way Travail operates. They’re relatively small group, locally focused, operate as a collective, and are inspired by finding new answers to staid building perceptions. Things like ‘every new kitchen needs an island’ are reconsidered by Michael Anschel: “It gets in the way! We want to develop a functional space because where does everyone gather in a home? It’s always in a kitchen.” Although, designing a commercial space is entirely different from a residential project, there were still some ideas that Otogawa-Anschel had used before that could work on this entirely grand, new level. Others? Well, they’d just have to create something unlike anything the world had ever experienced before. See? Not so dissimilar to Travail.

Pork Ice Cream Cone, potato, chanterelle mushroom, baby bok choi. Photo by Austin Lindstrom

Pork Ice Cream Cone, potato, chanterelle mushroom, baby bok choi. Photo by Austin Lindstrom

The new location is just a couple of storefronts down the street from the original Travail-turned-Pig Ate My Pizza. They demolished two buildings, but the new restaurant space will all be housed within four walls. (It’s next to Walgreen’s, which wouldn’t be of note, except that this is how everyone in Robbinsdale describes it: two shops down, on Main Street, next to Walgreen’s.) As to the way the building will fit in with the rest of Robbinsdale, the front will feature a red brick similar to many of the other buildings of the area, both historic and new. They also partnered with the city to come up with creative solutions for parking (the location will have 12 parking spaces…here’s hoping they’re going to offer some valet options).

The walls are made of a super-insulated, high-efficiency material that looks like an ice cream sandwich. Two pieces of plywood are filled completely with an expanded polystyrene core material (not unlike a solid block of the stuff inside a bean bag chair) and, together, are called Structural Insulated Panels. Using these materials as walls will mean that heating and cooling costs will be significantly less for the restaurant. There is also an added benefit that the walls will help absorb not only air, but sound. One of the biggest challenges for a restaurant is walking the tightrope between boisterous-party-level and din-level noise. No one likes shouting across a table. This will allow both the fun times to roll around inside The Rookery, but won’t detract from the multi-course meal experience at the revived Travail.

These “green” blocks are made locally in Cottonwood, Minnesota. Because they’re cut specifically for this project and reduce the need much additional traditional structural wood framing, the amount of waste created from the construction project is considerably less. So far, as the walls have gone up and the ceiling put in place, they have yet to fill even one dumpster with construction waste. Not only is the material incredibly strong, they will never have to worry about finding a stud to hang a picture. This will likely prove well for the restaurant as they don’t tend to do things that stay the same for very long. It’s a constant evolution for these creative minds and this building will allow them to continue to grow.

Plans and renderings of what Travail and The Rookery will be, united in the middle  by the Otagawa+Anschel wiggly bar.

Plans and renderings of what Travail and The Rookery will be, united in the middle by the Otagawa+Anschel wiggly bar.

I asked Anschel when he first became aware of Travail. “I’m a food guy. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see half my Tweets are all about food. We’re known for doing interesting, fun work with an edge and a focus on sustainability. It was a natural fit. I’ve known about these guys since they worked back at Victory 44 (the Minneapolis restaurant where the founding chefs first worked together).”

It also happens to be one of the few commercial, new construction projects that Otogawa-Anschel has worked on, being a primarily residential firm. “It’s really just a big house,” Anschel joked. And how people experience a residential space is something that brought an important knowledge base to this restaurant project; how to make a restaurant work for not only the chefs but also the guests.

Guests will enter the Travail Kitchen and Amusements/The Rookery space and encounter different zones intended for different uses, being that there are actually two different restaurants in the one building. The chefs will be working from two separate kitchens, although the rooms adjoin. This works well for guests as they experience an evening with these innovative chefs. If you aren’t already aware of this, Travail has never taken reservations and they aren’t about to start now. (There’s a theory that part of the reason their Kickstarter campaign was so wildly successful–raising over $250,000–was that one benefit for backers giving $250 or more was line-jumping.) For the rest of us, part of the experience of a Travail dinner is hanging out at the bar, soaking in that rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle while we wait (sometimes over an hour) for an opportunity to dine with them.

Loup de Mer 2 ways, ribeye, mandarin orange, orange candy chip, chili powder. Photo by Austin Lindstrom

Loup de Mer 2 ways, ribeye, mandarin orange, orange candy chip, chili powder. Photo by Austin Lindstrom

Inside the new space, guests can congregate around the wiggly bar. The design concept is something that Otogawa-Anschel has used before. They pointed out that at any bar, the conversation is often stilted. While it’s the best place to watch the cocktail shakers do their work, you’re left sitting as if riding the bus, next to a person you barely look at. In Minnesota terms, perhaps that’s fine for all strangers, but if you’re on a date, it kind of blows. If you’re meeting acquaintances, it takes on an awkward confessional feel. (I will tell you my thoughts, but we must never make eye contact or I will be forced to make my Dramatic Telenovela face.) The wiggly bar allows divots and turns, space where people can get closer to the bar and creates a natural turn in the body language. Not only can you see the cocktails being created, but you can also drink in the company you chose to keep. Anschel pointed out that you can also get more seats at a bar using the wiggly approach; one they have already become known for in their kitchen designs.

The seats at the bar inside The Rookery will no doubt be ground zero for a whole new floor show that many have not experienced before. The original incarnation of the restaurant only had a beer and wine license and didn’t mix drinks. The full-liquor bar here will come with the same dazzling pyrotechnics we’ve come to expect from these guys. James Winberg and Bob Gerken recently competed in Minneapolis’ Iron Bartender competition, sponsored by the North Star Bartenders Guild. This is a showcase for the best in local mixology. Top honors are hard won and against well-known craft cocktail makers like Parlour, Eat Street Social, and La Belle Vie, and these chefs from Travail made it all the way until the semi-finals. (They were beaten by the Marvel Bar team, who would go on to win the competition.)

The cocktails they made defied expectation, utilizing liquid nitrogen, incorporating “urban foraging” from the cedar trees outside the venue, and, above all else, tasted incredible. They carbonated sodas in a homemade rigged-up fashion, moments before serving them. Something as simple as warm booze accented with a vanilla bean became a transformative beverage adventure full of all the comforts of a mother’s hug. There is no convention that can contain these guys.

(Above) Structural Insulated Panels for fast, green walls. Photo by Hubert Bonnet. (Below) Stone for the surfaces of Travail and The Rookery as supplied by Amsum & Ash. Photos courtesy of Amsum & Ash

(Above) Structural Insulated Panels for fast, green walls. Photo by Hubert Bonnet. (Below) Stone for the surfaces of Travail and The Rookery as supplied by Amsum & Ash. Photos courtesy of Amsum & Ash

In the Travail space, every meal will be a 10-course tasting menu affair. Guests will come (possibly wait in line) and enjoy the dishes pouring forth from the kitchen that particular evening. The thought and intention of the room design are all geared so that the chefs can interact with their people. Tables will be available in both communal and two-top sizes. While all of their other restaurants have taken on entirely communal seating, this room will also allow for intimate dates for like-minded foodies.  There will also be a chefs’ table in the kitchen that will seat parties of 4-6 who really want a front-row view of all the action.

The Rookery will serve those dazzling cocktails as well as a smaller a la carte menu, where eaters and pick and choose their Travailian tastes. It will be even more affordable than the restaurant (which will have a set cost, but still likely less than some other fine-dining tasting menus in town).

The building will have plenty of windows, encouraging a lot of beautiful, natural light–something Instragram-ers will appreciate for capturing every beautiful food picture possible. The “hot tub” seat will also be making a return and there will be clear garage doors that roll open for outdoor access.

The interior will have industrial notes mixed with reclaimed wood, doors and open ceilings where you’ll be able to see all the trusses and duct work. Also, there will be stuffed animals. Oh yes, known for their extensive collection, those snugglies will be transformed into what’s known in the business as a “soundcloud.” Expect to see them packed together, floating through the ceiling and absorbing a bit of the extra noise. The floors will be hand-scraped hickory from Manomin Resawn Timbers and a few of the accent walls will be graced with a special rock veneer from Amsum & Ash that is curved, creating this organic-appearing form from a surface not known for its flexibility.

Bendy rocks, wiggly bars, food pyrotechnics, clouds of stuffed animals, revelatory cocktails, and a merry band of chef servers turning the food world on its ear: it’s a lot to take in at once. Plus, did we mention it’s in downtown Robbinsdale? Up is down, left is under, and who knows what else we’ll discover in this new destination hot spot? We’ll find out when they open, which is slated to happen before the clock strikes 2014.

For more information:

Travail Kitchen & Amusements

Otagawa-Anschel Design + Build

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