We look to the grill for lust, for the kind of joyous abandon that only seems to waft up from the smoky embers of wood or charcoal. Which is why the Twisted Tail is such a conundrum: For a restaurant that touts its charcoal-y acumen, there’s a curious, concerning lack of love to the food here. (The music, on the other hand, does it right, with a rotation of bluesmen and jazz ladies holding sway upstairs amid the sheet-music wallpaper and whitewashed bricks, the sound wafting downstairs like a particularly tuneful dream.)
Chef Michael Stevenson absolutely knows his way around a kitchen, his technique is soundly rooted, and his resume impressive (he was a chef at the Washington, D.C., Capital Grille, and personal chef to a number of top players on the Redskins). But perhaps that’s the problem: The cooking here is a bit too precious, too reliant on the alchemy of the open flame. The preparations I tasted often lacked that crucial scaffolding of abandon that characterizes the best examples of American grillery.
The “dueling ribs” appetizer came up short. So-called St. Louis Wuxi Asian ribs, pleasantly balanced between smoky and sweeter notes, was undermined by a minute or three too long on the heat, which resulted in tougher meat than necessary. Lemongrass, cilantro and ginger-kissed short ribs highlighted this particular appetizer, but those pleasures were quickly undermined by the acrid pacu-fish rib: The flesh acted like some kind of sponge for the smoke, and the result was like French kissing an ashtray. The complex marinade of mint, chervil and Son of a Peach ale was nowhere in evidence.
Crawfish macaroni and cheese failed for the opposite reason—it was devoid of much flavor at all. And in a place that pays homage to its supposed southern pedigree, a dull mac gratin is about as dissonant as a pubescent, never-been-in-love soul singer screeching out “You’re All I Need to Get By.” The crawfish on top actually detracted from the whole. Bland and mealy, these crustaceans were the icing on an altogether unfortunate cake.
Lamb sliders, their seam of gaminess well-cut by a sundried-cranberry aioli, fared better, as did crab cakes—as creamy and heartfelt as the mac was dull—with their crust of tangy kettle chips.
Osso bucco brulee also showed relatively well, though perhaps context was key here: its (perhaps too sweet) charred tomatoes overwhelmed, and its profile relied too heavily on sage. The ground veal inside too-thick ravioli skins could have used a bit more moisture, too. Still, this dish showed in spades what so much else here lacked: Heart. And that counts for a lot.
Special house-cured pork belly arrived as a crestfallen study in tans and earth tones, and the flavor followed suit. Aside from its pleasant rib-rub perfume, this pig was about as exciting as a concert featuring Michael Bolton singing alongside Kenny G. Lamb shoulder, too, was a curiosity: Sliced into careful petals, it was well-cooked, sure, but the cardamom, coriander and fresh orange juice it was treated to should have belted out their respective tunes with more volume and clarity. Garlicky parsnip-potato gratin in the center provided literal and figurative ballast, as well as excitement, but not quite enough.
Rum sauce and mascarpone cheese weren’t enough to lift a carrot cake from its dusty depths, but the fresh berry “mille feuille”—Grand Marnier pastry cream, lovely assorted berries, flaky pastry—provided much-needed life after the procession of odd quietude that preceded it.
Really, I just wanted more out of the Twisted Tail. Because there’s plenty to like about it: The bourbon and beer selections are well-considered—especially the option to taste one-ounce portions of the spirits, the better to explore the list more thoroughly—and the staff is pleasant. The music, too, is a needed addition to the neighborhood. But the food has to step it up, break free from its restraint, and let its wah-wah pedal reverberate. There’s lots of promise here, but I’m still waiting for the payoff. ■
509 S. Second St.
Cuisine: Homage to the charcoal grill.
Hours: Daily, 11am-2am.
Price range: $5-$29.
Atmosphere: Warm and comforting, especially when the music is playing.
Food: Needs to turn up the volume.
Service: Well-versed in the food and drink.