Twisted Cork Bistro isn’t about show.
Instead, the small restaurant is about often-overlooked details, things like perfectly cooked halibut, balanced sauce or a beer cocktail so full of flavor it’s hard to believe it has just two ingredients.
I wondered, during three recent visits, why I hadn’t been back to the restaurant since The World-Herald last reviewed it in 2011. I won’t take so long to return, especially after the across-the-board success of every dish I tried. That hardly ever happens in my line of work, but Twisted Cork is doing things right.
Part of that is due to owners Darrell and Laura Auld’s focus: a menu of wild fish, beer and wine from the Pacific Northwest meshed with Nebraska and Iowa meat, cheese, produce and bread. The rest of it is because of the kitchen skills of Darrell Auld and Timothy Maides, who started cooking there earlier this year and was at the helm when I visited.
An appetizer of sliced flatiron steak, cooked perfectly rare, arrived spiced with a blend of espresso and cayenne that had an appealing sweet-spicy mix; the spice lingered on the tongue and mixed well with a cinnamony apple on the side. The whole thing went well with a crispy bit of potato.
A plate of big scallops came with a bright, acidic lemon beurre blanc, the perfect foil for the buttery seafood. And the steak and shrimp duet had unusual touches: big shrimp wrapped in crisped prosciutto and a spicy Sriracha aoili on top that brought heat but didn’t overwhelm.
The restaurant serves cheese from Branched Oak Farm, outside Lincoln, along with a variety of accompaniments. The selection included a berry compote, nuts drizzled with honey, a fig spread, warm bread and crackers alongside Branched Oak’s nettle gouda, duet, which has cow and goat milk, and black stripe Jack, threaded with bits of black pepper. My only nitpick: the cheese arrived a bit cold.
A halibut entree — probably my favorite of what I tried — arrived tender and moist, topped with a charred jalapeño honey vinaigrette and simple sides of kale and jasmine rice. I could taste the fresh, pure flavor of the fish, but I also loved the acidic, spicy tang of the sauce and the mix of hearty and delicate texture.
The burger at Twisted Cork is one of its hallmark dishes, and it’s easy to see why. A flavorful, thick patty made of grass-fed beef and spiced pork comes topped with Tillamook cheddar; tangy pickled red onion; and a slaw made with shredded cabbage, apple vinaigrette and a second sauce, a combination of ketchup, spicy and sweet mustards and mayonnaise all on a bun made locally at Le Quartier Bakery. Savory and rich, it’s a burger worth trying, along with its sides of kettle cooked chips and an apple blue cheese slaw.
The restaurant has long lists of craft beers and bottles of Oregon and Washington wine. I tried two by-the-glass wines, both recommendations from the knowledgeable staff: the Procedo Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc blend from the Columbia Valley and the Patton Valley Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley. From a shortlist of cocktails, we tried the Breckenridge Wee Bitter, a simple but delicious mix of 471 Imperial IPA and a splash of Breckenridge bitters, both made in Colorado.
Twisted Cork has evolved since it opened, doubling its space from the original 30 seats on the north side. It has added a high top bar with seating as well as a long communal table in its south side addition. It also now has a Sunday brunch service, which seemed less busy than evening dinners — though we did see Mayor Jean Stothert there.
The stunner at brunch is Auld’s bacon Benedict, a twist on the classic that comes served on herbed ciabatta and topped with a thick slice of bacon, a poached egg, lemon hollandaise and sweet bacon jam. The mix of savory and sweet, of salty and acidic, is sublime.
We also sampled the cumin-spiked sweet potato corn chowder, warm and spicy on a cold morning; the balanced Northwest salad, a lovely mix of greens, nuts and fruit; and the Totem Tartine, with its warmed wild Alaskan smoked salmon, dill quark farmer cheese, a fried egg and pickled onions. Another nice touch: a side of grilled pineapple.
Starting 2015 with a visit to Twisted Cork sets the dining bar excitingly high for the year. These chefs can cook. They know how to execute their singular menu. The result is the kind of easy, comfortable dining experience that’s hard to beat.