For 19 years, Decaturites have been drawn to the cavernous Twain’s more by its convenience than its charm.
You went to Twain’s to shoot pool, play trivia, watch a ball game or toss your kids into the inner sanctum of video games and table shuffleboard, buying yourself 10 minutes of peace so you could scarf down a respectable burger and a very good beer (house-brewed in tanks the next room over).
But a funny thing happened while we were taking Twain’s for granted.
The food became spectacular.
In the three years that she’s been executive chef, Savannah Haseler has been stealthily transforming the menu. There’s stuff on there never heard of by the original Twain (that being Mark, who lords over the website, hoisting a beer). Herb farrotto. Jalapeno beer jelly. Vegan cheese and bacon jam.
Now, before you go rolling your eyes and declaring the death of another good, solid burger-and-beer joint at the Wusthof-wielding hands of foodies, let me assure you: Haseler has immense respect for pub grub. There are two varieties each 0f wings and nachos on the menu, and a vast percentage of the dishes still can be hoisted with your bare hands.
But, oh, what Haseler has done with those fistfuls of food.
For instance, her Southern wings (as opposed to the saucy, spicy house wings) look like architecture — a deep-fried Jenga tower of whole wings nested in a puddle of pimento cheese grits and sprinkled with some casual chiffonades of pickled collards.
If this dish looked too elegant for fried chicken — especially next to the mason jar of cutlery our server plunked down next to it — it tasted that way, too. The meat had been brined in sweet tea, a trendy treatment these days with good reason. While thankfully not sweet, the wings were juicy, crispy and light as air — a perfect counterpart to the rich, creamy grits. The summery, acidic collards were an equally perfect accent.
The slow-roasted pork belly made for another This-is-pub-food? shock wave. It was served as an open-faced sandwich on a big square of cornbread with “Southern kimchi” and a shimmering sunny-side-up egg.
The belly, while a little more toothsome than some, was still plenty buttery. And, again, with brilliant juxtaposition — smoky pork fat plus bright, spicy cabbage plus salty, coarse cornbread, all draped in a silky cascade of liquid yolk. I wanted to assemble each forkful assiduously to make sure every element was in place.
But there was no time for that, in part because our server was still in plate-slinging-in-a-pub mode. He brought our starters, for instance, not at the start of the meal, but along with the entrees.
Everything arrived in one fell swoop without apology after a pretty long wait. (Well, that’s not entirely true. Our order from the kids menu arrived in minutes, and even that was stunningly good — tender, flavorful housemade fettuccini with garlicky, fresh tomato sauce.)
On the one hand, I don’t even care about the sort-of terrible service, because this food is worth it.
On the other, isn’t it time for the Twain’s staff to realize that, for every burger on the menu — speaking of which, try the Olivia, with pimento cheese, green tomato relish and crunchy bacon — there also is a dish that deserves more respect?
The hominy, for instance, was a delicate toss of chewy corn, smoked white bean puree, the mysterious vegan cheese, pea shoots and supple little slices of eggplant. (Twain’s procures its produce from the excellent Global Growers CSA.) All came together with incredible sweetness and light.
Likewise, the cornmeal-breaded trout, fried until it was curled over onto itself, was a delicacy, served with a spicy jus, pickled green tomato relish and smoked grits that were subtly distinct from the other grits on our board — more corny, less creamy.
By the time dessert came, I was not surprised that our server didn’t bother to clear the dirty dinner dishes first. But I’m still pretty incredulous that those desserts included a peach buttermilk panna cotta.
That’s right, pub panna cotta. The pub part meant it came in a mason jar and was thicker and creamier than the jiggly, molded sort.
But the quality was another revelation. Laced with delicate slices of fresh peach, the flavor was subtle and floral, and the tartness of the buttermilk didn’t overwhelm the fruitiness of the peach.
Haseler has stepped up in a big way when it comes to Twain’s cuisine. The rest of the establishment might want to catch up.
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