[ review ]
In retrospect, it's clear the bartender was just trying to help. Looking for missing lunch menus, he shuffled and bumbled about like Lurch on a leisurely scavenger hunt. Behind the bar, at the host desk, in the kitchen, he paged through the Twisted Tail, the handsome new bourbon hall and "juke joint" in the old Headhouse Square Kildare's, as one might a magazine in a doctor's office. "Fuck are they?" he murmured, half to himself, half to us.
I now assume that this aloof bro's unpreparedness and subsequent inattentiveness was a careful ploy aimed to get us to leave before being subjected to some awful eats. It had to be. Surely no server at a restaurant of this one's ambition and polish could be so mind-bogglingly inept with only two customers to wait on in the middle of a weekly lunch shift.
It's hard to say which was worse during this initial visit to the Twisted Tail: the service or the food. I'd have to give the edge to the former, but only barely. Roasted on coals and served with sprightly watermelon-rind chow-chow and habañero cocktail sauce, the "primal" Blue Point oysters were like shriveled gray prunes. The buttermilk-fried chicken sandwich lacked flavor. While the "fire-roasted" burger, mined with poblano chilies and topped with pepper jack and chipotle ketchup, had plenty, it was way overcooked. "Dueling ribs" (tough barbecue-glazed St. Louis, dry Japanese-style boneless beef, slimy pacu) dueled only for worst in show.
I've got to think chef Michael Stevenson, a South Philly native who worked in New York and D.C. before coming home to cook at the Moshulu, can do better. And I've got to think owner George Reilly, a Brit who's labored 15 years behind the bar before opening the Twisted Tail, has trained his staff better. A follow-up visit steered by an affable, attentive and knowledgeable server proved at least one of the two true. The cooking, though markedly better on the whole, still suffered from inconsistency.
Dinner began promisingly, with succulent, smoky lamb sliders licked with tangy, calendar-correct cranberry aioli. With the brioche-hatted baby burgers and a slender pint of Dock Street pumpkin ale within arm's reach, it was easier to drink in the details woven into these charcoal-gray surroundings: the oval portraits of music legends hanging on the wood-paneled walls, the luxurious grain in the Shaker-style chairs, the checks presented in old CD cases. Upstairs, a lounge wallpapered in sheet music hosts live blues five nights a week, opposite a room furnished with a shuffleboard, a fireplace and its own Tuesday-night dart league. The Twisted Tail is an entire entertainment complex in one sartorially resplendent package.
Back downstairs, my server arrived with "primal" chili, way more primally satisfying than the oysters that bore the same descriptor. The stew respired with husky cumin and chili-powder-scented breaths, dark and red as the bricks of the Twisted Tail's colonial façade. It was full of meat — smoked chicken and ground lamb and grilled duck — an intense umami experience both amplified and mellowed by chocolate bitters and shards of salty chocolate bark melting on the surface.
The Twisted Tail's whole identity is expressed in that moving bowl of chili. Well-muscled, smoky and rich, it encapsulates the restaurant's style and dedication to cooking on coal. "At some point," says Stevenson, every protein on the menu (and even the tomatoes, for the cold-smoked tomato salad) "touches the smoker or the grill."
The live-coal love affair goes back to Reilly's childhood. "Most of my memories as a kid in England revolve around the grill," he says. "We had a swimming pool, and my birthday is in July. Every year we'd have a big barbecue. I can remember helping my dad light the fire."
At the Twisted Tail, Stevenson is the one to light the Aztec grill. All-natural, hardwood-lump charcoal from Maine smolders and glows beneath 48 inches of searing steel grates, plenty of room for a few overnight-marinated lamb shoulders and pork saddles. Creamy parsnip, carrot and Yukon Gold gratin upstaged the tender former, while the latter bombed on its own. Not even the savory corn cakes dabbed with honey butter could save the dry, overcooked pig. Thank the barbecue gods for the accompanying kettle-cooked black beans; lucky for me, they tasted exactly like the chili.
The onion tart, an English recipe Stevenson and Reilly have been "perfecting" since the Twisted Tail opened, was a mess, literally. It looked like it had been assembled by a three-toed sloth with Parkinson's, and featured so few slices of Vidalia I could count them. The onions that did make it into the flaky, curry-spiced pastry shell were as pallid and scrawny as Michael Cera in Juno, no caramelization whatsoever, and the blobs of chèvre were indistinguishable. The only highlight of this Easy-Bake reject was the tangy jicama/apple-slaw side. I'll take a large appetizer of that, please, and maybe the cast-iron skillet of smoky creamed Silver Queen corn larded with Asiago and curls of crunchy bacon.
At least desserts ended things on a positive. Think clever red-velvet Krimpets rippled with housemade butterscotch icing and a carrot cake festooned with sugared carrot streamers. You can drink your dessert, too, choosing from the squad-deep bourbon and whiskey roster Reilly has compiled. Two fingers of Jefferson's Reserve sounds like just what autumn ordered.
Music, bourbon and the charcoal grill. Of the ?three passions that inspired the Twisted Tail, two are beautifully expressed. Is the Twisted Tail a bar and music venue with food, or a restaurant with a bar and live music? To quote the illustrious Keith Sweat, make up your mind, 'cause I'm not gonna be here for long.
The Twisted Tail | 509 S. Second St., 215-558-2471, thetwistedtail.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-2 a.m.; kitchen open till 1 a.m. nightly. Appetizers, $7-$12; entrées, $10-$32; desserts, $7-$11.?