A spiral-shaped plate of olives arrives first, the olives and dried red chiles scattered across the center, olive oil and balsamic vinegar marinade flowing along the raised spiral as it rotates out toward the rim. The handles of the cutlery twist elegantly. An undulating "S" divides the menu into mustard- and cream-colored fields. The team that designed Twist Italian Restaurant pays attention to details.
But my friends and I are almost alone in appreciating them. At 7:30 p.m. Old Town Oakland is all but shut down for the night, and we share the restaurant with three other tables. An hour later, we can hear the last remaining table breathing.
Despite continued talk about revitalizing downtown Oakland, nothing can make it pop. Restaurant after restaurant keeps opening in the area, making Downtown and Chinatown as bright a culinary destination as College Avenue and Shattuck, but dinnertime remains a problem for restaurateurs.
Sam Wilson has come up with a smart solution: he's installed Twist in his Washington Inn, a boutique hotel on Washington and 10th with old-Oakland woodwork and convention-center patrons. Now the same kitchen can provide high-quality hotel dining to guests as well as draw in outside diners. (A room-service waiter occasionally ducks into the wait station -- where the servers pull hot plates from a dumbwaiter in the wall -- and picks up trays.) It's not an uncommon tactic in the hotel business, and often a successful one.
Wilson, who has long been in the building renovation business, moved the restaurant from the back of the lobby to a more visible corner of the building and designed much of the space himself. He envisions Twist's food as "catchy and attractive while easy to identify with." "We can't even spell 'ordunarie,'" reads the tagline on the menu, setting off a small seizure in the copy-editor half of my brain. As far as truth in advertising goes, Twist should be fined heavily: Its Californian food is neither particularly Italian nor particularly original. That said, it's often particularly good.
The dinnertime menu sports a handful of salads and appetizers, a handful of pastas that recall Piedmont Avenue more than they do the Piedmont hills, and seven or eight bistro-style entrées, all reasonably priced.
On our first visit, the food outcharmed our distracted and undertrained server. We suspected that bread was supposed to show up with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar, but none appeared. Our waiter had time to notice us -- she hovered over our table until our appetizers came, a plate of calamari fried with red onion and fennel slivers in a perfectly seasoned batter that had wilted a bit in the dumbwaiter, and an impeccably dressed rosette of butter lettuce with chunks of creamy avocado, tart red grapefruit sections, and freshly grilled, herb-rubbed prawns nestled among its leaves.
Then she took our drink orders and disappeared. The entrées arrived a half-hour later, wine completely forgotten until we were asked, "Now, is there anything else I can get you?"
The entrées -- generous portions all -- were constructed of big, blocky ingredients with strong colors and homey flavors. A large slab of beef short ribs, stewed on the bone with red wine and carrots until the meat pulled away, leaned against triangles of golden grilled polenta topping a satiny, dark-green pile of spinach sautéed with garlic.
We didn't derive much satisfaction from a gummy, underseasoned heap of risotto (hint: risotto shouldn't pile cleanly on the plate) with favas, asparagus, and grilled scallops, which even a starburst of red-pepper coulis couldn't resuscitate. However, the porcini-crusted halibut made up for it. Though the slivers of reconstituted porcini mushrooms spooned over it looked dry, the fish itself was so moist inside that it brought out the mushrooms' juiciness, along with their woodsy flavor. Here and there a dip in an earthy, slightly tart red wine and mushroom sauce gave the mild fish, which naturally borders on bland, a dose of meaty flavor. The wine the waiter recommended for my halibut, a powerfully fruity cab, matched the short ribs perfectly. I waited until most of my fish was gone to down the rest of it.
For dessert, we sampled a wedge of undercooked apple galette and then turned our attention to a plate of stuffed medjool dates. Each fruit was split down the middle, and mascarpone, more unctuous than whipped cream, was piped in and topped with a single berry-bright section of blood orange. Enhanced by a liberal douse of caramel sauce and chopped pistachios on the plate, each bite tasted richer than an entire pastry-cream-inflated éclair.
I returned to Twist for a Tuesday lunch to see what daytime business looked like. Though the convention center cast a shadow on 10th Street, enough sun came through Twist's banks of windows to make its mustard walls and cherry-stained wood floor glow. The inner doors are kept open to the Washington Inn, and the restaurant's clean, turn-of-the-21st-century lines flow seamlessly out into the stately woodwork of the turn-of-the-previous-century lobby.
This time, about a third of Twist's fifteen or so tables were filled with the pinstripe-suit crowd. In the far corner one was huddled over his salad talking quietly into a cell phone; across the room classical music burbled from a mini stereo on the floor. A sole waiter fielded all the tables slowly but adeptly. We received bread with our olives, olive oil, and vinegar. Drinks arrived promptly. He checked in occasionally instead of alternately doting and disappearing.
All of the dinnertime appetizers and several of the pasta dishes remain on the lunch menu, at slightly lower prices, and a trio of Italianate sandwiches with ingredients like roasted red peppers and eggplant replace the heartier entrées.
The Caesar salad we started our meal with took the low (cholesterol) road. A thin, citrusy dressing was spread thinly across the long romaine leaves -- its anchovy and garlic registered only faintly. Though I prefer the high-fat, high-density approach, the salad scored a hit with my companion.
Similarly, the daily special, rigatoni with a Bolognese sauce, gave the classic a welcome twist. Not a smooth, long-stewed Bolognese with ham and chicken livers, the chef's lighter, chunkier sauce nevertheless hit the perfect pitch. He tossed the firm, chewy pasta with enough sauce to dress each tube but not overwhelm its natural wheat flavor. The hearty but not heavy sauce melded ground chicken, pork, and beef with stewed tomatoes and white wine. We also enjoyed a summery sandwich of fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, paper-thin prosciutto, and shredded basil leaves on a long, soft section of baguette, and an even more summery duo of lemon and mango sorbets garnished with bright red strawberries.
Wilson has come up with a smart way to navigate the twists and turns of the restaurant biz in a daunting neighborhood. Twist may not deliver quite what it promises, but few diners will walk away feeling cheated.
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