ST. PETERSBURG — It's my last review for Taste before handing the reviewing responsibilities over to fellow foodie Jim Webster, and I happened on a little gem. It's an inauspicious location, what was once Adriano's and subsequently cycled through a bunch of failed concepts, attached to the front side of the low-rise Candlelight Inn. Still, the Twisted Cork Grille is the kind of diamond in the rough that every restaurant critic hopes to find more often.
Sean Gwynn and Mac McGuigan met each other while working on the Matchstick Grill concept. They've poured themselves into this project, stripping everything down in the tired dining room to make a cozy, dinerlike space with faux brick walls, repolished floors and retooled kitchen equipment. The food is American regional, lingering most lovingly on the foods of Louisiana and the Deep South. What makes it memorable is that, just 6 weeks old, the Twisted Cork is quirky and interesting, the unique vision of a couple of individuals.
Over the bleat of horns on Taj Mahal's Cakewalk Into Town, McGuigan chats with Gwynn about music as he plates fried green tomatoes ($5.50) with a sneaky-spicy honey Dijon sauce, the perfect golden disc slightly wilting their bed of dressed greens. The greens are tossed in what tastes like a warm bacon dressing, a strikingly lovely foil for the tart green tomato. Pair that with the salad called the Savannah ($6.50). Peeled and sliced peaches, ripe but still almost crisp, come on a bed of mixed greens in a slightly sweet white balsamic vinaigrette, fluffs of Gouda cheese, bits of sweet white onion and sweet pecans tucked throughout.
Salads are memorable across the board, the Cape Cod ($6.50) riffing on dried cranberries and blueberries with greens in a haunting lemon maple cream. It's thoughtful and different, a trend that continues on through the heartier appetizers and entrees.
For a gut-busting starter, one that you can plow into sans utensil, the loaded fries ($6.50) come heaped with a lush Gorgonzola cream, crumbles of bacon and blue cheese, a sprinkling of scallions and a few low-heat cherry peppers. And for all you Southern California fish taco enthusiasts or those who always wanted to try one, Twisted Cork is bringing it Baja style. It's not a textbook version, but nice corn tortillas come heaped with slightly blackened mahi ($6), shaved cabbage juiced with a little lime and topped with a creamy Baja sauce (like a slightly spicy mayo).
On paper, entrees look fairly straightforward: burgers, ribs, fried shrimp, pork chops. But it's the details that make things sing. Those boneless pork chops ($14) get a rakish bacon shawl and a smoked tomato salsa, super complementary, along with a plop of mashed potatoes. And the ribs ($12.50) are slow-roasted, then flash fried and glossed with a Coca-Cola-based barbecue sauce. Tender, crisp around the edges, the sauce sweet with a teensy spice, they're served with a scoop of coconut slaw that brings an unexpected tropical note to the proceedings.
The Twisted Cork still needs a big sign out front, and the Candlelight Inn isn't doing it any favors in the glamor department. It feels like a labor of love, done on the cheap, but with lots of good ideas executed through sheer willpower and elbow grease. From a BLT plump with the addition of fried green tomato and a slick of honey Dijon dressing ($7) to an ingenious deep-fried key lime pie ($5, basically a regular key lime pie wedge, frozen and rolled in graham cracker crumbs, then briefly fried to get that gooey center and crunchy edge), Gwynn and McGuigan have a unique vision.
As my last review before a yearlong hiatus, finding this plucky newcomer makes me hopeful about the direction of St. Petersburg's independent restaurants. May Jim Webster find many more to praise.
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