Food and wine are fine at downtown’s Twisted Vine


It has taken Twisted Vine some time to work out the kinks, but the wellappointed downtown watering hole appears to have tuned up both its food and service since my last visit.


It’s always been an attractive spot in which to enjoy cocktails or a glass of wine. The high ceilings, subtle pendant lights, soothing earth tones and spacious bar make it an inviting place to gather with friends for drinks.


But when it’s come to the food, it’s been inconsistent and pricey to boot. While I can’t say prices have improved, the caliber of the food surely has. That’s likely due to Chef Brian McCarley, who has the passion and know-how required to craft dishes that successfully combine fresh ingredients with full-flavored sauces.


One such example is the twisted calamari ($9), a creative departure from the ubiquitous fried calamari and red sauce. The twist here is that the breaded pieces of calamari are bathed in a spicy Thai chili sauce, then served with peanuts, red onion, basil and a drizzle of lemon aioli. The squid isn’t quite as crisp this way, but the flavors are lively and the peanuts and onion add crunch.


The only dish that disappointed was a classic Caprese salad ($9), a simple but elegant melding of mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The menu specified that the dish contained heirloom tomatoes, prized for their meaty texture and rich flavor. What arrived at our table were slices of the mushy, tasteless variety found in supermarkets. The balsamic was bland, too. This is a dish that succeeds or fails on the quality of the ingredients. If the kitchen is out of heirloom tomatoes, customers should be told that when they order or, better still, take the item off the menu


Both entrees were excellent. The nightly special — snowy grouper with hoisin sauce, forbidden rice and bok choy ($29) — was worthy of its appellation, with a firm, flaky filet atop the exotic black rice, just enough of the tangy sauce and tender-crisp bok choy.


From the menu, we tried the Caribbean duck breast ($27). A large breast was sliced then dressed with pineapple salsa accompanied by caramelized plantains, baby squash and carrots and a pool of creamy citrus beurre blanc. Not only did this dish possess lively Caribbean flavors, it also boasted the bright colors typical of the region. The duck was tender and I liked the tangy-sweet salsa instead of the customary sweet fruit sauce that can overpower the delicate flavor of the meat.


For dessert, we shared a molten chocolate cake with caramel ($9) and a flight of ports ($20). The cake was light and warm, with a suitably liquid center of chocolate and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The caramel was more a garnish than an ingredient, but the dish was a tasty finish and just enough to satisfy both of us.


It went exceedingly well with the three ports — Sandemans Founders Reserve, 10-year tawny and 20-year tawny. A flight is a great way to explore a particular wine — or port or scotch or whatever — because you can sample three at a time and detect the subtle differences among them. In this case, the 20-year was the most resonant of the ports, but each of the three had its charms and all went well with the cake.


As for service, it was a slow weeknight when we visited so I can’t say what it’s like when it’s crowded, but the staff was uniformly attentive, from the smiling hostess who greeted us at the door, to the manager who thanked us for coming in to our charming server who timed our courses properly, checked to make sure each dish was to our liking and kept an eagle eye on our beverages.


Among the things I’ve always liked here is the range of wines available by the glass. We enjoyed glasses of Tres Picos grenache, something that’s rarely available except by the bottle. For those who want a bottle, however, there’s an even larger array from which to choose. Twisted Vine is a little bit off the beaten path, especially now as construction has made parking nearby somewhat more challenging. But if it’s been a while since you’ve been there, it’s worth a return trip.


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