IN THE BAG: Fried chicken cozies up with pickled okra and sweet-potato fries.
The “Blue Point oysters were like shriveled gray prunes.” The savory tart? “An Easy-Bake reject” layered with onions “as pallid and scrawny as Michael Cera in Juno.” Dueling ribs “dueled only for the worst in show.” This isn’t some venomous Zagat capsule for the Twisted Tail, but a few choice lines from my original review of the suave Society Hill music box and barbecue from two years ago. I rehash the lashing not to salt owner George Reilly’s wounds, but to illustrate how far the English expat’s passion project has come since then.
“We’ve been very true to our bourbon-and-blues roots, and that’s kept us going, but finding that person in the kitchen that can adopt and understand the vision has been the biggest challenge,” says Reilly, a behind-the-bar veteran. “We’ve definitely gone through a progression with the food, and it’s at a place now that I’m very happy with and proud of.” He should be. Thanks to chef Leo Forneas, the Twisted Tail no longer needs to rely on cinnamon-infused bourbon drinks, dart leagues and Wednesday blues nights to lure customers.
Not to take away from the liquid distractions, of course. There’s a rotating roster of infusions (blueberry gin, watermelon vodka) and cocktails built on them, plus a thoughtful selection of brown liquor worth exploring, especially during Bourbon Heritage Month; Reilly is doing special pairings and tastings all through September, culminating in a bourbon dinner on the 18th. Beers rep local producers as well as English imports like Crabbies, a dark, fairly sweet, fizzy alcoholic ginger beer that’s probably the Zima of the U.K. Don’t care. I can’t imagine anything better while sitting out on the Twisted Tail’s sun-splashed sidewalk.
With its colonial brick front, Victorian globe sconces and bay windows trimmed in denim blue, you’d figure the specialties of the house would be kidney pies and room-temp ales, not shrimp and grits and bourbon flights. The Filipino-born Forneas, who first came to Philly on a research trip while opening Buddakan New York with Michael Schulson, had never cooked Southern food before joining Reilly at the Twisted Tail.
“I didn’t know anything about Southern cooking, so I did a lot of research,” says the classically trained CIA grad. “It’s, like, how can you make the best fried chicken? It’s not going to compete with your grandmother’s cooking.”
Who is this grandmother? I would like to meet her. The closest mine got to fried chicken was breaded cutlets, baked in the oven the stupid healthy way so the crumbs would never get crispy. In that way, I guess she and Forneas have something in common; his brined-and-buttermilk battered local bird, despite a deep fry, lacked a thoroughly crunchy shell, the hallmark of proper fried chicken. Served in a paper sack and drizzled in rosemary honey, the breast and thigh slipped off their skins like a balloon wrapped in Jell-O.
The fried chicken came at a lunch that began with a curious starter: earthy braised mushrooms and goat cheese whipped with candied ginger — an inspired combination — buried under giant Lolla Rossa leaves. Raking them up felt more like an autumn chore than a salad. I left that visit feeling like Forneas’ presence had made little difference.
Back for dinner, he redeemed himself with an array of vibrant tapas cooked on the Maine hardwood charcoal-powered grill: strips of smoky veal bacon in a garland of pickled red onion; tender marinated quail whose dainty legs I dragged through tomatillo chimichurri; lime-splashed pork-belly squares not unlike the kind Forneas ate as a kid in the Philippines. Forneas comes from a family of food people. His grandfather owns a butcher shop, his grandmother a fishing boat. The chef is at his best when pulling from his heritage, connecting dots between the tropical island of his youth and the American South of his imagination — dots that seem to surprise even him.
Like okra. A favorite crop on his uncle’s farm, Forneas was already well versed in how to combat the vegetable’s sliminess. At the Twisted Tail, he whips them into wonderful pickles to complement the fried chicken. Pig is another defining parallel. Roasted then briefly smoked, the chopped pork butt tucked inside empanadas with cilantro, jalapeños and cheddar has the mosaic of rich meat, soft fat, crispy skin and chewy cartilage a la Filipino lechon.
He cooks seafood beautifully, whether sweet Louisiana shrimp over well-seasoned Anson Mills grits; a thick steak of Chatham cod paired with heirloom tomatoes and black garlic vinaigrette; or a grilled Pennsylvania trout presented head-to-tail but without nearly all of its bones, the fillets held together by spine and a dab of transglutanimase “meat glue,” a nifty trick. It would seem Forneas needed to look to no one’s grandmother but his own.
Posed over snappy, slender green beans, the trout could have used some salt. The cod, too. But it was easy to forget those little imperfections when dessert arrived. Accompanied by a swing-top jar holding a thin layer of bourbon caramel, round beignets came so thoroughly crusted in cinnamon-sugar they glittered like snowballs in the sun. Brown liquor also laced the gooey peach cobbler, though all I could taste was the bittersweet end of summer. Bacon ice cream came on the side. I was hoping we were over that.
The Twisted Tail is not the best place in town to eat. But it’s a considerably better one than it was two years ago. Now if only a Forneas-like fix could befall the Phillies.
THE TWISTED TAIL | 509 S. Second St., 215-558-2471, thetwistedtail.com. Hours: Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Sun., 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Appetizers, $6-$18; sandwiches, $8-$11; entrees, $12-$19; desserts, $7.
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