Sarah's, the bright and brash downtown bistro at 18th Street and Grand, generated a lot of buzz when it opened last winter. And not all of it was about flamboyant chef-owner Sarah Walker.
I ate there only once, joining a few co-workers for lunch in May. It was a good lunch, and chef Walker's menu, though limited, was surprisingly sophisticated. But the prices were steep. When I returned the following week for dinner, Walker was gone and the windows were covered with brown paper.
Lana Todd, who had a financial stake in Sarah's, took over operation of the business. She ousted Walker, promoted the promising sous chef, Jonah Thompson, lowered the prices and changed the name of the venue to Twist.
That put a great deal of responsibility on Thompson, who is only 20 years old. He's not inexperienced, having worked in the kitchen at Lidia's for a while. And the menu is a simple, one-sheet affair with a modest array of starters, salads and sandwiches, seven entrées and a handful of desserts. Still, this was a risky move for Todd and Thompson. If a restaurant this close to the Power & Light District is going to succeed, it can't just be good anymore — it has to be great.
But Thompson is still learning a lot on the job. That's not necessarily a bad thing — I have more respect for a young chef who is constantly experimenting than a veteran who just goes through the motions. But it makes the dining experience a little inconsistent.
One Saturday night when I was having dinner with Bob and Addison, Thompson stopped by our table to check on things — we were practically the only patrons in the dining room at that point. He got an earful from my opinionated companions, both veterans of the restaurant business.
"Why are you serving this calamari," drawled Southern-born Addison, "at the bottom of this big old cup? You can't even see it! You stick your fingers in and poke around like it's a scavenger hunt. There's no visual appeal. It needs to be on a plate. And it needs to be more crispy."
Bob complained that the homemade spring rolls weren't crispy enough and, more to the point, that they were ridiculously greasy.
I quietly nibbled on a wedge of really tasty flatbread pizza and watched the young chef's eyes widen like saucers as he listened and then agreed that he hadn't perfected his fried spring rolls technique.
A bit later, Thompson told his short life story: how he left a small Midwestern town to attend the culinary program at Johnson County Community College but dropped out relatively early. "I'm not really into sitting at a desk and studying," he said. "I want to cook."
"That's all well and good," Bob said, wiping his greasy fingers as Thompson walked away from the table, "but maybe he should have stayed, you know, one more semester."
I dipped a crunchy garlic chip in a glob of spicy (but not nearly creamy enough) hummus and gave Addison and Bob a stern look. "You two didn't become perfect waiters at age 20," I said. "The only way this kid is going to be a chef is on his own terms, by learning in the kitchen." I reminded them that in my past life, I worked with two graduates of the Culinary Institute of America in two different restaurants. Yet both of them occasionally overcooked a steak or screwed up a soufflé.
At this point, though, the restaurant's décor is more impressive than its food. The interior didn't change much in the transition from Sarah's to Twist. Orange plastic chairs still surround unclad tables, the main colors are vivid orange and apple-green, and Todd continues to display paintings by local artists throughout the long storefront space. "It's like Miami," Addison said. "You step into this restaurant and right out of Kansas City."
My friends Kathi and Susie thought the same thing when they joined me at Twist for a weeknight dinner in mid-June. The room's colors really light up at night, which made our table of three seem almost forlorn, surrounded by so many empty seats. Still, even though the space needed a lot more bodies, its lively look and the positive energy of Thompson and his servers gave the joint some much-needed pizazz. Twist does a respectable lunch business, but a lot of the downtown dinner crowd hasn't discovered it yet. "It's a fun dining room," Kathi said. "If it was in Westport, it would be packed."
"I wonder if that's true," I said, carefully taking a spoonful of Thompson's house soup: a hearty pozole verde made with turkey and green chiles, topped with a dollop of cilantro-lime cream sauce. Susie thought it was salty; I disagreed but wished it were more fiery. The peanut sauce served with the crispy spring rolls — much improved this time — did have a kick, though, and the soft flatbread topped with chopped tomatoes, red onion, olives and lemon-garlic feta was wonderful.
Susie ordered one of the few entrées that cost more than $15: a fresh hunk of tuna steak, lightly seared and slathered with a jade-green cilantro-wasabi aïoli. I worried about that sauce — talk about a potential clash of flavors — but it was pleasingly coy, not overly punchy, and a nice accent for the tuna. Sadly, though, the wasabi-flavored mashed potatoes weren't quite creamy enough. "I don't like my mashers al dente," Susie said.
I feel that way about meatballs. In my bowl of pasta, smoked mozzarella ravioli surrounded a giant veal-and-ground-beef meatball so big, I could have played croquet with it. Thompson uses very little breading for his meatballs, but in this case, egg and a handful of breadcrumbs would have made for a more memorably moist polpetta. A couple of smaller, marinara-simmered meatballs would have served the dish even better. Kathi ordered the fish and chips, which were seductively crunchy but not Thompson's most inventive culinary offering.
"Our chef makes wonderfully creative desserts," our server said before rattling off a list of exotic-sounding sweets. Kathi chose a lime bar — delightfully citrusy but too doughy. Susie was intrigued by the idea of the chocolate soup, a glossy, puddinglike concoction of yogurt, brandy and chocolate served in a cocktail glass. Kathi and I watched her take the first bite. "The yogurt gives it body," Susie said, "but I can't taste the brandy."
A few days later, I had lunch at Twist with my friend Betty. She adored the place and raved about the food, but one of the ingredients on the BLT sandwich confused her. "What's lime-spritzed bacon?" she asked the waiter.
He said it was bacon splashed with fresh lime juice. "It's one of the things we do," he told us, conspiratorially, "that gives us that different twist."
I didn't taste a hint of lime on the bacon. Maybe, like the brandy in the chocolate soup, you have to imagine it to be there. A clever twist indeed.
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