The Rookery in Robbinsdale

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

The Rookery, the newest venture of the Travail trio (Mike Brown, Bob Gerken, and James Winberg), evokes a suburban gastronomic Disney World: over-stimulating, exciting, and unapologetic. It exudes personality while keeping you on your toes, dishing up one micro-plate at a time, either a la carte or via the $30, 11-micro plate “Bite Flight.”

Sharing a space with nationally recognized (tasting-menu only) Travail, the 54-seat Rookery and its counterpart are distinguishing themselves from their more “reserved” competitors in town by making their restaurant a theme park, with the food as the main entertainment: Gratuitous hair band music blaring from overhead. Non-stop commotion.

An open space with quirky embellishments: peculiar teddy bears stuck in the rafters and a toy car in the back; it’s aggressively quirky without a cohesive theme throughout. Gimmicky, perhaps? Not really. Delivering something other than food and having people pay for it is a business model – and seems to be a smart one at that.

So, with an open mind, we sat back and enjoyed the ride.

The Violette Pilot ($10, pictured at top), a bright, candied, floral-note combination, made for an inventive, complex gin creation. The presentation alone was quite whimsical; we didn’t know whether to drink it or pot it. However, the smooth operator of the night belonged to Pisco the Night Away ($11). Consisting of four ingredients — Pisco (a South American grape brandy) and egg with an apricot and black pepper fruit leather garnish — this soothing, well-balanced, sweet-sour libation packed a mean punch. Don’t let its modesty fool you. (Downfall: Thanks to the name, the infamous Chumbawamba song was stuck in our heads. And now it’s in yours.)

Let us preface this by saying that our edible adventure started out on a pretty good note. Enter the oysters ($2). Much to our chagrin, they didn’t serve your typical oysters — not by a long shot. Silly us for thinking otherwise. Instead, in a petite porcelain cup, was oyster pot de crème with compressed cantaloupe. Despite its richness, it still had a lift to it, and the cantaloupe garnish was a nice texture contrast to the custard’s silkiness. However, the cantaloupe itself tasted out of place. The combination of the two flavors resembled an arranged marriage: forced. We didn’t like it. We didn’t despise it. We respected its intentions.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Our next bites were meticulous. Immersed in a seaweed and mushroom broth lay a mini oxtail hamburger ($4, above) surrounded by togarashi, carrots, and peppers. The cutting technique and precision of the vegetables left us almost speechless. The rich flavor held on even with the raw beef texture, with the perfect amount of salt.

Pig at My Pizza in Robbinsdale: Louie the Loon

DWITT / Heavy Table
DWITT / Heavy Table

Pig Ate My Pizza in Robbinsdale

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Pig Ate My Pizza, the new restaurant from the madcap crew behind the extremely popular (and soon to return) Travail in Robbinsdale, is indubitably fun. Paintings of pigs (including swine-themed interpretations of a famous image from Pulp Fiction and the cover to Nirvana’s Nevermind)? Fun. Pink cloth napkins? Fun. Chefs singing along with cheesy ‘80s tunes (“Take on me, take me on”)? Fun. Kids dancing in a fur-bedecked booth? Fun. Complimentary pre-dessert “Bacon Cracker Jacks” and “Flintstone Push-Up Shake?” Fun. Everything in this place is fun.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

That includes the food — as playful, enjoyable, and comforting as the atmosphere. Along with their signature pizzas, Pig offers a selection of both cold and hot appetizers and first courses (including a pasta of the day). While we were tempted to try the “Chi Chi’s & Guac” ($5), “Hog Tots” ($6), or “Salt & Pepper Nugs” ($5), we saved our appetite for pizza… and dessert, always dessert.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Some chefs who mess around with molecular gastronomy and novel flavor combinations, trying to come off as whimsical, end up outsmarting themselves. They disappoint their customers with cute, generally expensive food that just doesn’t taste very good. But others, such as the Pig / Travail crew (Doug Flicker at Piccolo also springs to mind), skillfully blend creativity, restraint, and technique to produce truly innovative, delicious cuisine.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

The “Mussels from Brussels” pizza ($12) is a great example. Rather than a traditional sauce, a deep red mix of diced piquillo peppers, olive oil, and sour raisins is spread over a hand-tossed, beautifully simple, chewy Neapolitan crust. Along with the titular shellfish and Brussels sprouts, the base is topped with crumbles of chorizo and puffs of finely grated manchego. If that wasn’t enough, the dish comes with a side of mussels broth for crust dipping. Each of the carefully prepared elements comes together to produce a multi-layered, balanced, and surprising flavor extravaganza. It’s an alluring, artistic, and damn tasty pizza pie.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Two other pizzas were less inventive, but only slightly less delicious. The “Piggy” ($14) is just what the name suggests: pork, pork, and more pork, piled high on a golden brown brioche crust and topped with melted cheese. Salty pepperoni, bacon, prosciutto, and cubes of ham are heaped onto buttery, sweet brioche. Although tasty, the “Piggy” was just a little too rich and heavy, and because the crust sucked up the sauce, it got a tad dry. We’d love to try this pizza on the thin Neapolitan crust.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

The “Margarita” ($11) is classic simplicity: marinara, fresh mozzarella made in house, and basil on a Neapolitan crust. To put its own spin on this traditional nosh, Pig infuses the crust with garlic oil and tops the pie with fresh, tender micro-basil and a drizzle of basil oil (a bright distillation of the usual limp leaves). Our only complaint about this dish — and it’s a minor one — is that the sauce is too subtle. It’d be great if it really stood up to the other flavors.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Pig’s hijinks reach new heights with dessert. Composed tableside, the dish we ordered featured artfully scattered hunks of angel food cake and compressed strawberries, and as the pastry chef started his work, a whole cast of supporting characters joined in. Here and there, we saw a moist rectangle of pressed graham cracker, white chocolate powder, dollops of white chocolate mousse, soaked cherries, shards of dark chocolate, mint oil, lime sorbet, cheesecake mousse, and… we lost track! Some elements might have been superfluous, but the dish looked and tasted dynamite. While showy, it wasn’t fussy and precious like many “deconstructed” desserts served around town these days. The chef clearly had a great time concocting this composition, and we had a better time eating it.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Pig Ate My Pizza is a fantastic addition to the area’s thriving pizza scene. It’s in the same league as Black Sheep and Pizzeria Lola (and Lola’s awesome new offshoot, Hello Pizza), even if it plays by its own rules. If you’re looking for a rowdy good time and a great meal, we highly recommend you call the Pig.

Pig Ate My Pizza
4154 W Broadway Ave
Robbinsdale, MN 55422
763.535.1131

HOURS: Tues-Sun 12-2pm and 5-10pm
OWNER: Travail LLC
RESERVATIONS: No
BAR: Beer and Wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Limited
ENTREE RANGE: $9-18 (Tasting menu, $60 for 2 people, $110 for 4 people)

 

You Say Tra-vigh, I say Travail and Morning Roundup Part 2

A suggestion to “reconsider walnuts,” Iggers raves about Travail (the gastropub we briefly previewed in August has become quite the media darling of late, between Dara’s charcuterie recommendation and Rachel’s review), St. Paul Grill adopts throwback prices, Michelle Gayer and the Salty Tart are “in” (though this writer would contend that the Salty Tart’s reputation has been growing since before Gayer’s first Beard mention), and Amy of Green Your Plate finally busts out her now-dusty pressure cooker.

Should You Find Yourself in Robbinsdale, MN

Jason Walker / Heavy Table

Just across the Minneapolis border and a short bike ride from Theodore Wirth Park, downtown Robbinsdale has somehow maintained its small-town feel. It’s not a street lined with century-old brick buildings, and with a McDonald’s and Walgreens it’s not as picturesque as, say, Taylors Falls or Hastings.

But considering you’re 10 minutes from downtown Minneapolis and a short drive from Highway 100, it’s pretty damn quaint all the same. Robbinsdale (pop. 14,000) celebrates Whiz Bang Days every July, counts many retirees among its residents, and includes many modest houses, manicured lawns and American flags, and State Fair goddess Marjorie Johnson. People here love their hometown and are damn proud of it.

With two new restaurants opening this summer, Robbinsdale has two more reasons to boast about its downtown. Travail, opened in July by star chefs from the already popular Victory 44 in North Minneapolis, has a chalkboard-simple menu of small bites, entrees like butter burger, fish and chips, steak and potatoes, and “chicken and egg,” and a small but enthusiastic wine and beer list. It’s a likely slam dunk in this city that would never be called “hoity-toity.”

Jason Walker / Heavy Table

James Winberg, Travail co-owner, said the building drew his interest, but Robbinsdale sealed the deal.

“It was more of the space than the town, but then once we got here, and we started meeting everybody, it was just like icing on top,” Winberg said. “Everybody down at City Hall was extremely helpful.

“A lot of restaurants when they do a remodel, they paper over the windows. But we wanted to leave it open, so people could watch the progress and stop in and ask us questions, shoot the shit, whatever. That was what happened; we got to know all our neighbors.”

Lunch on its second day of operation (Travail opened July 27) was exquisite — the beet salad was as delicious as it was jaw-droppingly beautiful, and the aforementioned chicken and egg — a breaded and fried poached egg, with runny yolk, paired with layered dark meat chicken with mushrooms and a brothy gravy — was as succulent as it sounds. A lone complaint was the lack of bread with which to mop up the gravy.