We finally made it over last week to the Rookery, Travail’s new a-la-carte sister restaurant in Robbinsdale. The two restaurants share one big open space in a new building, so it’s a little hard to tell where one restaurant starts and the other ends. As we entered, at around 8:30 on a Thursday night, there was a long line of customers waiting for tables. When I asked, I was told that there would be a one-hour wait for a table at Travail – which offers only a prix-fixe tasting menu for two – but that we could be seated in the Rookery immediately. (Travail’s standard fixed-price menu is $110 for ten courses for two people, but it does offer an early-bird special of $85 for diners who are seated before 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and a $90 date night special all night on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.)
That made the decision pretty easy. I have long been a fan of Travail’s cuisine, and if you have ever dined at the old Travail, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect at the Rookery – a chalkboard list of micro plates at prices that range from $2 for a taste of liver pate or salmon to $6 for a burger or $8 for beef marrow, scooped from the bone. We were seated at a counter, and quickly settled on the Rookery’s $60 11-course bite-flight menu for two – apparently a little less opulent than the Travail counterpart, but in the same spirit.
I’m not sure I can even remember all the courses – nine were savory, two sweet – but they started with a little lollipop coated with sweet cherry (?) glaze and filled with chicken liver pate, followed by hamachi tartare on a thinly sliced lemon, followed by truffled scrambled egg with mascarpone, shrimp roll with lobster bisque, spring pea risotto, lamb with chimichurri, oxtail in dashi broth, gnocchi with octopus and chorizo, parsnip cake with vanilla panacotta, and – I forget the rest. But, oh my. There is something about the carefully paced succession of very small plates, and the novelty of the presentations that focuses the mind, so that you taste familiar flavors for the very first time. Each course is a moment to be savored.
What the Rookery does to cocktails is a bit like what they do to food. I have to admit that the whole cocktail mixology trend has totally passed me by – I mostly drink craft beers, and I boggle at the idea of paying $12 for a drink. But seeing a concoction that looked like a science experiment, in a flask full of red liquid and smoke aroused my curiosity. The drink, it turns out, is a Ron Burgundy, made with bourbon and cherry (liqueur? juice? I’m not sure), and the smoke was real tobacco smoke, produced in the kitchen with some little table-top smoking gadget, and the flavor was unusual and very enjoyable.
There is a high energy, high decibel vibe to the Rookery and Travail, with the cooks doubling as servers, and in constant motion as they hustle from the open kitchen to the tables and counters. My companion speculated that the team of cooks – almost all men – probably is offered many, um, expressions of appreciation by their female clientele. I didn’t actually see any lingerie thrown into the kitchen, but I can understand where she is coming from – there is a kind of high testosterone Keith Richards swagger that permeates the kitchen team. On the night we visited, half a dozen of the crew had just gotten mohawks – because one of them did it for a weight-loss challenge, or something like that. Soon after we were seated, customers waiting for their tables at Travail started dancing ecstatically – and that was even before they tasted the cuisine.