Ants on a log is a good walk spoiled.
He didn't say that. But he probably would have, because whoever it was that first thought of smearing peanut butter into the cavity of a raw celery stick and then punctuating it with a line of black raisins was barely human.
So it's alarming to see that the very first dish on the menu at Twain, a new restaurant from chef Tim Graham and his sommelier-partner-spouse, Rebekeh Graham, is "ants on a log."
But if you've followed this chef's career from Tru to Paris Club to Travelle, in the Langham Hotel, you know this will be something different. And it is. The celery's raw vegetal punch and mandible-resistant structure remain, while the stalk is filled with duck liver mousse, thickened and sweetened with peanut butter and brown sugar, then topped with a row of bourbon-preserved cherries. It's still a weirdo in the world class of after-school snacks, but it's actually something that defies expectation, and is therefore something worth eating. Once is probably enough.
Twain sits in an old auto body shop in Logan Square, along the stretch of mostly quality clubs, bars, and restaurants that have sprouted like mushrooms over the last few years in what is subsequently becoming a place to avoid on weekends, when it's descended upon by people who don't live in the city, much less the neighborhood.
The last time a Milwaukee Avenue entertainment venue tried even indirectly to associate itself with a dead white writer, all hell broke loose. That was last June, when a bunch of people got mad at a bar named Neon Wilderness that opened in Nelson Algren's old hood.
The Grahams' references to Samuel Clemens and Mississippi River lore are a little less circumspect, but if any English professors are triggered, nobody else seems to mind. Twain himself is referred to in design elements by architects Jordan Mozer & Associates--"the guy who did the Cheesecake Factory," a bartender told me, standing under a shimmering copper-etched back bar depicting the Duke and the Dauphin from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Dan'l Webster, the eponymous amphibian from "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." On the opposite wall is a 60-foot-long felt collage featuring various other creatures from Twain's writings.
The food is said to be informed by the spiral-bound community cookbooks Graham began collecting as a lad in his hometown of Columbia, Missouri. He says he's amassed around 300 titles as crusty, disparate, and bizarre as Kissing Wears Out, Cooking Doesn't and The Art of Chinese Cooking by the Benedictine Sisters of Peking, all together featuring everything from calico salad to Watergate cake to lotus root sandwiches.
The chef spins affectionate jokes out of this material. Some of these are presentational—crudites are served with aioli and ranch and Green Goddess dressings in an orange ceramic flower pot. Others are executional: a long beef femur, split and piled with meaty sloppy-joe sauce, is a suburban subdivision version of the luxe marrow beef tartare he served at Travelle, but every bit as pleasurable when the hot, jiggly bone jelly scrambles with a sweet Middle American bolognese on a thick, toasty slice of white bread.
On a large menu to match the sizable 90-seat dining room, Graham indulges in all sorts of improbable-sounding dishes, more than a few of them so unexpectedly successful that you wonder what other secrets the churches and ladies' clubs of central Missouri have been quietly disseminating among themselves.
Here's one secret from Columbia, the signature appetizer of a thirtysomething-year-old jazz club called Murry's: rings of green bell pepper battered, deep-fried, and sprinkled with confectioners' sugar like a state-fair nightmare mom might foist upon you just to get a vegetable down your throat. Graham has jacked this dish (with credit to its inventor, a mysterious "Brock"), and it's a surprisingly reasonable drinking snack, the sweetness balancing the greenery clad in irregularly adhered patches of crunchy, light tempura.
The menu is a parade of the irresistibly absurd. There's a thick, hollowed-out baked russet potato shell—the crunchiest potato chip on the river—cradling a deposit of soft, squishy gnocchi loaded with bacon, smoked sour cream, and gooey cheddar Mornay sauce. For beer cheese soup you're meant to dilute at your own discretion a thick alloy of sharp Hook's white cheddar, pureed carrot, and red pepper with dribbles from a High Life pony bottle like a splash of sherry. An abrupt swivel toward Japan is expressed by a surf-and-turf tower of meat loaf with thick, nori-seasoned onion rings and glazed freshwater eel. These rise from a pool of swampy, slightly sweet beef gravy alongside smooth mashed potatoes whipped with red miso, a trick I'm confident will go over huge at any Thanksgiving provided you don't tell anyone over the age 50 or below the age of ten.
More straightforward supper-club and Caucasian country-cooking classics are nonetheless swollen with an exaggerated meatiness and the tongue-in-cheek attentions of a chef trained in the crowd-pleasing ways of the Lettuce Entertain You empire. A rich, livery braunschweiger paté, smeared on rye with spicy mustard and raw onions, feels like a day-drinking snack in Janesville, Wisconsin. A wedge of iceberg thoroughly smothered in tarragon-powered Green Goddess and sided by concentrated roasted tomatoes props up a "bacon steak," a slab thick enough to inflict a bruise in the wrong hands. Thyme- and rosemary-scented dumplings are larded with crispy chicken skin and a chicken-fat roux that thickens their gravy, while a similarly easy-on-the jaws crock of spoon bread is saturated with the discharged juice of cider-glazed pork shoulder. The same piece of Catalpa Farms pig is cured, shaved, and plated with sharp cheddar, which makes for a fine ham-and-cheese sandwich between the soft, superrisen Amish-style white bread smeared with butter compounded with chile-tinged beef fat. The VFW hall of your dewey-eyed daydreams is conjured up with crispy battered-and-fried fresh lake perch and fried spuds, preboiled and shaken in the colander to achieve a crispy, scuffed multitexture.
Executionally it's not all warm and fuzzy. One evening my table took a wrong turn toward Mexico with a stringy overbraised hunk of short rib atop a heap of pinto and red beans with pico de gallo, while a duo of lush pork cheek and overdone pork chop put up too much resistance under a light application of creamy veal-based blanquette sauce with poached onions, mushroom, and cauliflower. On another night, thick and undercooked cream-cheese-blended turnover dough engulfed a scant filling of mushroom duxelles.
Desserts—which, in full disclosure, appeared en masse one evening unordered--are by former Travelle/Langham Hotel pastry chef Stefanie Bishop, and they hit the same target as the savory side of the menu does, with an intensely bittersweet mud pie, its chocolate crust nearly as thick as its dark mousse topside. A tottering cream puff barely contains blueberries and a full moon of hand-cranked corn ice cream. The iconic, gooey butter cake of Saint Louis is here a risen puck, half as gooey as your mom's, set on a smear of peach sauce and topped with rosemary-scented roasted peaches and a tangy yogurt mousse.
Rebekah Graham handles the drinks and goes a bit off script with a fine manhattan, poured in a NYC-style Greek diner paper cup that does it no favors, and other oddities like the Shrimp Cocktail, a gin daiquiri garnished with a whole shrimp, and the Jam Jar, a concoction in which orange marmalade and dill-infused aquavit duke it out. The beer list is short and almost all local, and the wine list is manageable, though the sommelier herself one evening picked out the perfectly tannic Greek red Glinavos, suited to a broad range of the dishes, that I never would have suspected.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Mark Steuer's irreverent approach to both the German food of his ancestors and the southern food of his upbringing at West Town's Funkenhausen, and that's of a kind with the way Graham has tackled the rural, white midwest. I don't know how essential the ghost of Mark Twain is to the concept, but the food here is definitely tied to a real place and is expressed though a talent that confounds and surpasses expectations of it. I don't know if Mark Twain would be into it--he didn't like tamarind after all, or the people who eat it.* But he really did say this: "Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside." So maybe he would be. I'm definitely on board. v
* "Only strangers eat tamarind—and they only eat them only once."