The Twisted Fork Grille in St. Paul
The newly opened Twisted Fork Grille is billed in its press materials as focused on “farm-to-table freshness.” Yet it’s interesting to note that it’s owned by some of the same people who run the casual dining chain Green Mill*, which is primarily focused on “thin n crispy pizzas.” (The Twisted Fork is, in fact, physically carved out of the Green Mill on Grand Ave. and Hamline in St. Paul.)
Nowhere in the restaurant’s initial, highly detailed press release is this mentioned. The attached Twisted Fork Grille fact sheets skip over this, too, dwelling instead on the biographies of chefs Keven Kvalsten (former co-owner of The Green Room, chef de cuisine at Corner Table) and Stephen Trojahn (former executive chef at Graves 601).
This is profoundly irritating. When you’re trying to figure out what a given establishment is all about, there are few things as essential as understanding who stands to make money. If the Twisted Fork is — as it seems to be — an attempt on the part of Green Mill’s owners to dabble in farm-to-table and possibly launch a major commercial initiative in that direction, mazel tov. A lot of good things can come out of corporate experimentation, and the fact that this joint has experienced owners who do casual dining throughout the Midwest isn’t something to be ashamed of.
It is, however, something to disclose and talk about, particularly somewhere as crunchy granola and generally transparent as the Upper Midwestern farm-to-table scene. When you don’t, it looks like you’re trying to hide something, and when it looks like you’re trying to hide something, you make people suspect your good intentions.
Further compounding suspicion: the menu.
If you walked into the Twisted Fork, you wouldn’t know that it was meant to be a locally focused farm-to-table restaurant. The dinner menu makes only a few mentions of local food (“North Dakota Angus beef,” “Nueske’s bacon,” “Minnesota pork chop”) and, with the exception of Nueske’s, doesn’t bother mentioning where anything specifically comes from**.
In fact, if you count up sourcing referencing on the menu, you have six local dishes or ingredients (counting the Minnesota chopped salad) and six distinctly not local (pomegranate, ahi tuni — mentioned twice, Avery Brown Ale sauce, PEI mussels, and Atlantic salmon).
Avery? Seriously? How hard would it be to do a Summit-, Surly- or Lift Bridge-based sauce?
At any rate, the restaurant’s website credibly cites copious local sourcing — Ames Farm, Faribault Dairy, Venison America, and many others. This is super stuff, and proof that Twisted Fork isn’t a malicious front. But why not celebrate it on the menu? Why not actually do farm-to-table whole hog? That’s what’s perplexing: The marketing and organization of the restaurant is a toe dipped timidly into the water of local sourcing, when the whole point of experimentation is to jump in, head first. Go on, freak out the squares! Let ‘em riot!
The idea of compromise or wavering commitment is a good one to dwell on when talking about the food. Collectively speaking, it’s not great. It’s also not bad. Overall, first and foremost, it’s profoundly safe.
A bison meatloaf ($13) was dry and oversalted, but had a pleasant smoky / mushroomy umami — it was halfway home, a valiant attempt. A chili spiced pork chop ($13, two photos up) was outclassed by its sides, a pleasant toasted barley risotto and sweetly gingered carrot slices. By comparison, the pork chop — while adequately moist — was bland and lacked spice or heat.
Still worse was the natural Angus pot roast sandwich ($10, above), which came on a squishy multi-grain looking bread that lacked character and chew. This is a sandwich you can forget before you’re done chewing. It’s Panera-style cuisine — mild, soft, and dull. A horseradish cream could’ve saved the day, but it was spiritless and lacked zip. Elsewhere on the menu, a linguini with chicken sausage dish ($12) barely merits mentioning, as it had all the hallmarks of something that could’ve easily been done more skillfully by a modestly experienced home chef.
Better — and an important step in the right direction — were tender North Dakota-sourced natural Angus beef brochettes ($10), a skewered appetizer featuring medjool dates and a tasty salad of mixed greens and a bleu cheese vinaigrette. If only the crispy Amish chicken legs ($7, above) had been as good — these honey- and chile-marinated legs were a bit dry and lacked flavor. They earn points for texture, however, as they were delightfully crispy.
Breakfast wasn’t a game-changer. The “steak” half of the menu’s steak and eggs ($11) was tasty good and well-seasoned, but the breakfast potatoes were bland and undercooked. Huevos rancheros ($9) were decent, but not memorable, and hash browns ($1.50) were pleasantly crispy.
The best thing we sampled over our visits was a strawberry rhubarb shortcake ($6) that was offered on special. The shortcake was essentially a sweet homespun drop biscuit; the rhubarb sauce was tart, the strawberries tasted fresh, and there was a mint simple syrup on the plate that added an extra dimension of flavor. The whipped cream was Serious Business, as it was clearly actually heavy whipped cream. For a dessert like this, that’s not a small detail — it’s the key to the palace. Seasonal, (presumably) local, ballsy, well-executed, this is the template to follow to make the Twisted Fork Grille a serious restaurant.
The good news is that if the establishment moves in that direction, the service part of the equation is already solved — without exception, the hosts and servers were polite, focused, and pleasant.
The open question is whether the owners want it to be serious, or they want to cater — without ambition or flair — to an audience they’re already comfortable working with. With courage, some gastronomic nudging, and a more aggressive use of sourcing on the menu, the Twisted Fork could someday stand shoulder to shoulder with the big boys. Until then, happily, farm-to-table diners still have the Craftsman… and Corner Table… and Alma… and Common Roots… and so on, and so forth. Nobody’s going hungry.
Jill Lewis contributed to this review.
The Twisted Fork Grille
Farm-to-table in St. Paul
1342 Grand Ave
St. Paul, MN 55105
OWNER / CHEF: Green Mill Restaurants / Keven Kvalsten, Stephen Trojahn
BAR: Beer + wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Not really
ENTREE RANGE: $9-19
*I tried to clarify the exact ownership situation with the restaurant’s PR representative, Kristi Arndt of peridotgroup. Here’s the response I got from Chef Keven Kvalsten via Arndt: “The ownership group for Twisted Fork Grill includes principals from the Green Mill organization. However, Twisted Fork Grill is an individual project; it is not a Green Mill project.” I wasn’t able to clear this up to my satisfaction by press time; suffice it to say that sharing multiple owners and a physical location mean that the two projects are entangled. To what end remains unclear.
**The response to this was that since suppliers often change, it would be difficult to keep the menu up to date vis-a-vis sourcing. Other local restaurants have dealt easily with this by using some combination of a specials board and daily or weekly menus printed up as needed.