Although I always wince when I utter the dreaded word “staycation,” remaining close to home while away from the office certainly has its advantages.
For one, it’s an opportunity to view familiar surroundings through a different prism. That’s what I did last week, when food-obsessed friends came to town and I joined them at a number of local restaurants, soaking up their newcomers’ point of view. It was fun, and instructive.
We started at maverick Travail Kitchen & Amusements (4124 W. Broadway, Robbinsdale, 763-535-1131, travailkitchen.com), which continues to impress, in countless ways.
Dinner, a 20-plus-course extravaganza, is served in two seatings, four nights a week. Reservations are in the form of tickets, pre-purchased on the restaurant’s website.
The gifted staff, led by co-owners Mike Brown, Bob Gerken and James Winberg, performs double-duty, cooking (often tableside) and serving. Just watching this crew as they go through their breathless routine is enough to work up an appetite.
That unflagging energy and enthusiasm are the restaurant’s most valuable asset. The evening flies by in roughly 2½ hours, and if my sketchy arithmetic is accurate, we were fed a dizzying 26 courses. Some whirled by in a flash, making little impression. But many stood out. Way out.
Late-summer vegetables were arranged in an artful composition that recalled a Chardin still life. A shrewdly conceived taco, its foundation built on shreds from a suckling roast pig that had been showily paraded through the room earlier in the evening, was one of the tastiest dishes I’ve encountered at the restaurant, and that’s saying something.
A stunner of a shrimp terrine, finished with smoky tomato accents, represented the Travail collaborative at its most ingenious. Succulent lobster was the secret filling lurking inside a witty (and delicious) two-bite corn dog. Hanger steak was magisterially wrestled into velvety submission.
Who else would think to hang parchment-thin shears of a spectacular Tasso ham on hooks, dangling them over diners’ heads, requiring hands-free consumption? Even the cocktails demand respect and attention, the happy outcome of placing skilled, creative chefs behind the bar.
Sure, desserts remain the kitchen’s Achilles heel. There was a notable absence of poultry, a house specialty on past visits. And, for an establishment that justifiably prides itself on originality, its omnipresent fascination with liquid nitrogen — seriously, does a tanker truck pull up and unload every week? — loses its luster with repetition; surely there are other gastronomical tricks to exploit.
Dinner is also served with a hefty portion of showmanship, and it’s all in good fun. But after seven boisterous years, the staff’s bro-tastic routine is wearing thin. It’s a rowdiness that feels forced, and dated, and also unnecessary, since the high-spirited cooking continues to radiate a youthful modernity. Show, don’t tell, right?
The biggest disconnect: The frat-boy antics — and the college football blaring on big-screen TVs — don’t fly with the extravagant prices. My $148 tab broke down into $115 for the tax-inclusive reservation (the restaurant’s peak-pricing model places a premium on Saturday night service, which drops as low as $75 during lower-demand time slots) and a $33 service fee; those luscious cocktails are extra.
Theatrics are baked into Travail’s DNA, and that playfulness deserves to be celebrated and admired. But it should also evolve, and mature. Holding onto the beer-swigging, zicke zacke zicke zacke battle cry lends a sour note to this otherwise one-of-a-kind experience.
Returning to Young Joni (165 13th Av. NE., Mpls., 612-345-5719, youngjoni.com) after a monthslong hiatus was pure pleasure. Yes, the pizzas, enshrined in my memory, remained impressive. No surprise there, given chef/co-owner Ann Kim’s track record at her Pizzeria Lola and Hello Pizza.
But it’s the dishes — all wonderfully shareable — that come to life on the kitchen’s wood-burning grill that knocked me out. Roasted sweet potatoes, their purple skins blistered by the fire’s heat, are dressed with a compare/contrast combination of hot pickled Fresno chiles and cool crème fraîche that’s fortified by oven-roasted green onions. The topper? Gossamer bonito flakes, eerily shimmering in the potato’s heat.
The jumbo prawns, crackling with chile-fueled fire, were better than ever; ditto the meaty spare ribs, glazed with mirin, soy and honey. A new must-have is the sweet corn, roasted to accentuate the corn’s sugars, then brushed with lime, butter and hot, seasonally appropriate Calabrian chile peppers. Wow.
Sitting in that animated, wide-open room is a treat. And I’d forgotten how much I craved the simple desserts: a creamy vanilla soft-serve ice cream garnished with a fruity olive oil, and a small selection of butter-drenched bars, idealized versions of church basement classics. Oh, and full marks to the well-drilled service staff.
In the North Loop
Lucking into a highly coveted seat in the bar at Spoon and Stable (211 N. 1st St., Mpls., 612-224-9850, spoonandstable.com) for drinks and a nosh, I was reminded that the North Loop destination is a standard-bearer for service in Twin Cities. The staff — so hospitable, knowledgeable, accommodating — didn’t skip a beat, and three cheers to that.
It also helps that the knockout of a room is as fresh, inviting and comfortable as the day the restaurant opened, 34 months ago.
As for the food, fantastic. (And the bar’s penchant for highly quaffable nonalcoholic cocktails has no local peer, except, perhaps at Bellecour, its sibling establishment in Wayzata.)
One of my friends was so tickled by the creamed spinach topped with cheese curds that she ordered it twice, and we delighted in a snappy cheese-curd-stuffed brat served on a spectacular house bun.
The gentle flavors of firm herring, pulled from Lake Superior’s chilly waters, were underscored by sweet beets. Voluptuous burrata — and a bright peach compote — spread nicely over toasted slices of seed-packed rye bread. Dessert? A meticulously crafted exercise in contrasting textures, colors and flavors, with blackberries, bee pollen and sesame in the starring roles. Nice.
The charming couple seated to my left admitted that they try to drop into the restaurant’s bar at least once a week for an impromptu dinner. That’s an example I’d like to follow.
Linden Hills, and sweets
And after telling out-of-towners, for years, that they needed to visit Fika (2600 Park Av. S., Mpls., 612-871-4907, fikacafe.net) at the American Swedish Institute, I finally heeded my own advice and steered myself and a friend to 26th and Park.
What a great way to show off the city: a stunning architectural landmark and thoughtfully prepared Scandinavian fare. As we tore through coffee and pastries (those jam-filled thumbprint cookies are as tasty as ever, and my next baking project is replicating the crisp, spicy pepparkakors), I was filled with envy when the adjacent table’s great-looking lunch — meatballs, gravlax and poached halibut — materialized.
But we were off to a quick pre-airport lunch at Tilia (2726 W. 43rd St., Mpls., 612-354-2806, tiliampls.com). Every time I’ve returned to the Linden Hills restaurant since it opened six-plus years ago, my first task is quickly scanning the menu, hoping that my go-to hasn’t evaporated, a victim of kitchen boredom.
Nope, it’s still there, and it’s still fantastic: grilled shrimp, juicy and firm, enriched with feisty fermented black beans, smoky green onions, a brightly acidic sauce and cool, slightly sweet peas. Hurrah.
Perhaps chef/co-owner Steven Brown keeps the dish on for romantic reasons; its roots are in an impromptu meal he once created for his wife. But it’s probably a practical business decision, since it continues to be one of the best $13 investments a diner can make in the Twin Cities.
I used the height of peach and fig season as an excuse to drop in on some of my favorite bakeries, which did not disappoint, whether it was Carrie Riggs’ free-form peach galettes at Cafe Alma (528 University Av. SE., Mpls., 612-378-4909, almampls.com); or Solveig Tofte tossing peach slices with zesty ginger and folding the results into flaky, diamond-shaped pastries at Sun Street Breads (4600 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-354-3414, sunstreetbreads.com); or John Kraus turning out exquisite, worthy-of-Paris fig tarts at Patisserie 46 (4552 Grand Av. S., Mpls., 612-354-3257, patisserie46.com); or Michelle Gayer embedding juicy sliced figs into sweet, brioche-style buns at the Salty Tart (920 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-874-9206, saltytart.com).
Finally, after friends raved about the straight-up Korean simplicity that is Dong Yang (725 45th Av. NE., Hilltop, 763-571-2009), and the sublime bacon waffles and hash browns at Al’s Breakfast (413 14th Av. SE., Mpls., 612-331-9991, alsbreakfastmpls.com), I had to laugh, because who had clued them in to both spots?
That would be me. Then I penciled the two restaurants to the top of my to-do list.