The Revisit: A Second Chance For The Twisted Tail

The Grit Invasion of Philadelphia may be long in the tooth by this point, but that hasn’t kept new armadas from lashing the city with ever-growing waves of cream-soaked, butter-fatted, cheesed-up swells of coarsely milled corn.

And with each new entry into the city’s unofficial shrimp-and-grits competition, you could be forgiven for wondering if grits should be classified now as a dairy product rather than a grain. That’s all fine and good, as its goes.  Not exactly shocking that restaurant kitchens still like butter and cream in 2013.

But consider the recipe provided by Anson Mills–the South Carolina grain specialist whose grits have become the gold standard in high-end restaurants. It’s a simple ingredient list: grits, a bit of salt and pepper, and water. Plus a pat or two of butter to mix in at the very end.  Pretty austere, right?

The thinking at Anson Mills is straightforward: too much dairy fat eclipses the flavor of the corn they take so much pride in growing and milling.

This philosophy sprung quickly to mind not long ago at, of all places, The Twisted Tail, a blues venue that got an awful lot wrong about Southern cooking back when it opened two years ago. But those memories of mediocrity faded away in the light of many of new chef Leo Forneas’s dishes, not least his Louisiana-style shrimp and grits.

The shrimp were terrific. Score one. But it was the grits that got my attention. Here was a rendition worthy of Anson Mills’ product: almost thin in the (relative) absence of dairy fat, but long indeed on that terrific corn flavor. “Can they actually be cooking these just in water?” I wondered. The answer turns out to be no. Forneas adds a little milk to the water. But he holds back on the butter, so that sort of evens out. Swirled in with the bacon vinaigrette that ties that dish together, each bite of grits whet my appetite for another—as opposed to dulling me with dairy into the grit fatigue that so often sets in.

(Since I went, Forneas has declared a more local grit allegiance, to Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown, but blues fans shouldn’t let that keep them away.)

I never thought I’d revisit The Twisted Tail, but the rumors of a renaissance that drew me back turned out to be true. Forneas trained at New York’s Aquavit, was a line cook at Oceana, and sous cheffed in Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s empire. He’s brought a much steadier hand to the Twisted Tail. Sure, it’s renaissance writ small—this is, after all, a blues joint with pretty modest culinary ambitions—but I came away from dinner happy in more ways than I expected.

First, there was the bartender who broke through my beer-list indecision with a sentence I wish I heard in every bar: “We’re doing $4 off all large-format bottles.” All of a sudden, that Innis & Gunn Scotch Ale aged in old rum casks was in play, for a song.

Then there was a taller order. We had a play to get to, and were running just a tad late, so we needed to get in and out in decent time—an hour and ten minutes, to be exact. Which our friendly waitress pulled off literally to the minute—capping off our meal with complementary shots of intensely concentrated hot chocolate—despite the fact that she was still new enough on the job that she was being shadowed by another server.

In between, there were plenty of things to like and only a couple to complain about. The grilled quails were juicy, and Forneas’s tomatillo chimichurri was just the thing to brighten their smoke-tinged gaminess. His country rice balls—arancini flecked with country ham—were crispy and moist and zingy with Dijon mustard. There were skillet-blistered shishito peppers (aren’t there always, nowadays?), and I was glad that the accompanying arugula pesto was sort of a disappearing act, because salt is really all you need. (It was a little odd, though, that out of 15 or 20 chilies, not a single one was hot. Usually there’d be three or four.) A mushroom salad came out of deep left field—goat cheese, truffle vinaigrette, and … candied ginger?—but for me that unexpected sweet-spicy zip smacked the catcher’s mitt in easy time to catch the runner (even if my wife found it more of an errant throw).

Both of us could have lived without the pork belly off the Charcoal Grill section—it was minimally cooked, and too maximally fatty for the spritz of lime to cut through. But Twisted Tail is now officially in the major league when it comes to fried chicken. Forneas brines his Lancaster birds for a day or two, soaks them in buttermilk for another day, and slow cooks the flour-dusted pieces before plopping them in the deep-fryer. The result is succulent meat and a crust that’s so crispy you won’t believe how simple it is. I could have sworn it was breaded in Corn Flakes, but Forneas swears it’s flour alone. Three huge pieces came in a bag also stuffed with good sweet potato fries and sprightly-sweet pickled okra. Each part of the trio was terrific on its own; my only complaint was that given the honey-rosemary glaze on the chicken, every component erred on the side of sweetness, which wore me out in the end.

Overall, though, I was happy to find that The Twisted Tail has not worn out its welcome on Headhouse Square, which seemed like a real possibility back when it opened. Instead owner George Reilly has managed to extend his original strengths—whiskey, beer, and the kind of music that makes you thirst for both—into the kitchen. And I’m glad. Philly deserves a proper house of blues, and now it’s got one that can do a little more than one bourbon, one shot, and one beer.

Twisted Tail [f8b8z]