The Twisted Fork Grille in St. Paul

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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
★½☆☆ (notable)

1342 Grand Ave
St. Paul, MN 55105
651.690.5901
OWNER / CHEF: Green Mill Restaurants / Keven Kvalsten, Stephen Trojahn
HOURS:
Sun-Thu 7am-10pm
Fri-Sat 7am-midnight
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.

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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22 Comments

  1. This article is the kind that turns me off to the heavy table.

    It comes across as sniping at a business (local?) simply because it doesn’t meet some stringent standards that are probably a moving target anyways.

    Did the new iphone TELL you that you can’t hold it like a normal phone.

    Did my Jeep TELL me that it was actually manufactured in Mexico.

    It’s not a product or services role to tell you it’s potential shortcomings.

  2. Foodlover06/30/2010Reply

    I agree with Ryan. It’s clear you have an agenda or at least a vendetta against someone……you truly seem like you do not enjoy food which is what the followers of blogs such as these like to read about………so sad…….

  3. John Minn06/30/2010Reply

    There is a fine line between “celebrating local food” and being really pushy and almost obnoxious about it. In this article you seem to be coming down on the obnoxious side. I personally can’t stand menus where each entry is more of a short story about origin and locality of each ingredient – when I read the menu at the old heartland I always got lost in the local references, at the end I couldn’t remember whether it was the trout from Lake Whatchamacallit in Wisconsin or the pig humanely raised on acorns from the hilltop in Treehugger County in Northern Minnesota.

    I guess the answer is somewhere in between …

  4. Christine06/30/2010Reply

    I disagree with the first two commenters. If a restaurant is going to try to attract customers based on a “farm-to-table” locavore credo, they’d better have the local sourcing to back it up. This reminds me of Cafe Agri in south Minneapolis, which billed itself much the same way and had a menu loaded with distinctly non-local food. Mangos? Jicama? (They made their own mission much harder by keeping the place sort of pesco-vegetarian: when it’s November in Minneapolis, what’s local? Chicken! Beef! Pork!)

    Speaking of chicken, Amish chicken? Isn’t that usually from Pennsylvania? Off the top of my head, right this second, I can think of two well-known free-range chicken producers right in Minnesota. And why go to North Dakota for beef when there’s plenty of sustainable beef in Minnesota?

    I eat my share of non-local food; I don’t claim to be a purist. But if a restaurant’s trying to get a competitive advantage by hitching their wagon to the locavore movement, they’d better back it up with local food and plenty of it.

  5. Maybe just maybe they are trying to bring the concept to the masses, at an affordable price point, that can scale and is profitable from a business standpoint.

    I don’t see how this is bad, not everyone can afford to change their menu daily and re-print to highlight the days find.

    Get ready for this “locavore” to get real tiring real soon. I was just at big bowl and I had to listen to this long winded…local strawberries-this and local sugar snaps this…it was overwhelming…and thats coming from a chain restaurant.

    Its coming to your restaurant, it’s coming to your grocery store, it’s on your internets, it’s gonna chase you down the block riding a creepy tricycle or driving a Subaru shaking ears of luscious local corn while scolding you for eating imported grapes! IT’S COMING!!! BEWARE THE LOCAVORE

  6. I agree with James- it’s very very easy and trendy now to claim ‘local and sustainable’……but takes much more to actually back it up. Ever heard the term ‘greenwashing’? Sounds like maybe the website designer isn’t the same person as the one who designed the menu, and of course the chef is yet another person/s. They need to have more meetings and get clear on what they are doing. Maybe they will read this review and improve the coherence of the place. Sounds like the cooking could use some improvement too.

  7. Wurstmacher06/30/2010Reply

    Green Mill is a mass market concept. They serve decent quality at a decent price, but they are completely immersed in commodified ingredients (industrial/mass market food with no expressed provenance or claims regarding growing methods, family farming, or ecological high mindedness).

    Once upon a time there was a woman named Alice Waters. She didn’t invent local food for the first time, she reinvented/reintroduced it in American culture. Actually Jeremiah Tower did, but Alice gets the credit. Now there is a national chain, Chipotle, featuring a real commitment to ethical food sourcing (drug, pesticide, local claims galore). Incidentally the founder of this chain worked for Jeremiah Tower , but I digress, or do I?

    Twisted Fork is twisting the connection between a real movement, and a marketing angle. Local food is holy ground, and they will not fool those of us who eat and drink the ideology. The problem is they have bathed themselves in the terminology without understanding that it is a fundamental shift in business practice and in understanding food generally. I do not believe that they are trying to take local food to a mass market. Of course they would love to get buy in from the local foods community.

    In my mind a broader Chipotle like approach would make more sense. Associating yourself with food that is raised to verified standards of husbandry and organic food broadly would make more sense. Trying to hang your hat on local provenance is hard work. They certainly could do it seasonally, when the local product not only is price competitive, but also tastes better (cause it takes less time to get from the field to the table).

    This article is excellent because it will move the community forward in the understanding of spin versus reality. Twisted Fork has a tiger by the tail. They may prevail. I wish them luck.

  8. So, to summarize the opposition here. The restaurant is billing itself as something it’s not, but that’s okay because you are tired of hearing about that which the restaurant claims to be. To disagree with this logic somehow means you don’t love food.

    Got it.

    If you are tired of reading about locally sourced food on menus, then don’t read the descriptions. I would note that the menu at TGI Fridays reads more like a novel than that of Heartland.

    Don’t tell me where my food comes from. Just tell me if it’s zesty and/or juicy, dammit!

  9. Not really the angle I am taking. More that this concept of local produced sustainable is gaining ground. It is being noticed (a good thing isn’t it?)

    I guess the bigger issue that I think is being questioned and needs to be addressed is can you/how do scale sustainable farm to table? And is large scale a bad thing?

    I would be suprised if Sysco and FSA aren’t offering products or developing internal silos/business units to take advantage of this (bring local sourced meat and produce with fewer/ or zero stops directly to restaurants).

    For sure I expect to see Walmart with their dominant supply chain mgmt and real green initiatives start to bring single sourced local produce and meat directly to their stores and you can be sure their going to market the hell out of it.

    That’s what I mean when I say IT’S COMING!

  10. keven kvalsten07/01/2010Reply

    I source my pork, much produce, herbs, eggs, cheese and grow lots of odds and ends on our rooftop garden at Twisted Fork. Bison, beef and Lamb are from the mid-west. We don’t label every item on our menu because my purveyors/farms change. As is the current menu!

    To say we are not sourcing local is just not true. And personally, it sucks to hear this kind of banter on some blog. I’ve been working with local farms since the late nineties and have sustained these working relationships through my career.

    So we are owned by some of the Green Mill corp. Great! Just think if a huge national chain would just do the same thing. It can only be good for the customers and the farmers themselves. ?!

    On and above…here’s a great blog I found about our last event the Crispin Cider Dinner. (the scallops weren’t local)

    http://ciderlover.blogspot.com/2010/06/cider-dinner-at-twistedgork-grille.html

    cheers,
    Keven

  11. morchella07/01/2010Reply

    Questioning the ownership is an interesting point but to dwell on it and make it the focal point of the article is missing the forest for trees. The sentiment of looking down one’s nose at a restaurant who may or may not meet a high expectation only serves a self-interest for the author and not a larger community purpose of supporting local sourcing, good food and good journalism.

  12. Wurstmacher07/01/2010Reply

    The constantly changing menu is part of the cost of sourcing from small local purveyors. Increase the print budget, increase the cred.

  13. John Minn07/01/2010Reply

    Keven, please do NOT label every item on your menu – I don’t really need to read on the menu that the thyme is sourced from your rooftop garden. A priori I trust your concept, but also realize that you have to run a business. I think the food police is way out in left field on this one.

    By the way, I seem to remember that Chipotle, certainly a mass market concept, was owned by McDonalds at some point – how is that for corporate ownership.

  14. wurstmacher07/01/2010Reply

    Corporations are not bad. No one’s making that argument. Large scale operations that have strong ethics are highly admirable.

    I eat at McDonalds. I can taste the terroir of the potatoes.

  15. The Chipotle thing’s an urban myth — they didn’t “own” them, they bought some stake in the company and then divested themselves from it…

    So the comments are pretty interesting. I think the main gripe is that they’re marketing themselves as local without really showing how they are. It’s sort of like greenwashing, as someone said. But, I guess I don’t understand — if they are doing the “right” thing in the end and are too hush-hush about it, what’s the problem? North Dakota beef instead of Minnesota? That’s a little too extreme, I think. And besides, is this a review telling me whether the food’s good, or how devoted the restaurant is to sourcing? I mean, it sounds like the food’s good but the tone of this post makes it sound like they’re McDonalds or something. I’m not sure the points needed to be hammered over and over and over.

    On the other “side,” this doesn’t make much sense: “Did my Jeep TELL me that it was actually manufactured in Mexico.” Well, no, but there’s plenty of other ways to signal different things to the consumer. The organic/local label is usually a ethical shorthand for healthy/sustainable/locally supportive. You have plenty of similar “shorthands” for other products: “Buy American” for American cars (locally supportive), the whole electric car thing (sustainable). The big difference is that you don’t put a car into your body, so people tend to be a little more anal about food.

    I think it’s cost effective to scale this stuff up. There’s a good article about Wal-Mart of all people doing that: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/03/the-great-grocery-smackdown/7904/ A quote: “The program, which Walmart calls Heritage Agriculture, will encourage farms within a day’s drive of one of its warehouses to grow crops that now take days to arrive in trucks from states like Florida and California.”

    Yeah, they’re huge and have money to do that, but still … it’s not like organic/local means “crazy expensive” anymore. There’s a pretty well developed infrastructure for organic/local in the MSP area — it’s what makes the organic/local thing relatively easy to do here. If slightly chainy restaurants want to try their hand at it, even if they’re sorta clumsy, I think that’s a good thing.

  16. http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2006/dec/23/chipotle-founder-had-big-dreams/

    McDonald’s did own a “Majority” stake of Chipotle at one time.

  17. Stand corrected — I only knew about that first minority stake investment.

  18. “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.”

    ugh, no.

  19. John Minn07/02/2010Reply

    Had lunch at Zelo today, their turkey club lists “local bacon” and the server explained the special, Caprese salad with “local organic tomatoes”. Now do you believe that?

  20. wurstmacher07/03/2010Reply

    Zelo also touts “conventional raised” beef on one of their dinner items. They obviously have a real handle on the “locavore” disclosure requirements ;0

    The following is a link to one of the funnier parodies of information obsessive menu writing:

    http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/10/03/051003sh_shouts

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