Review: Twain celebrates old women’s-club cookbooks, but menu full of modern twists

From www.chicagotribune.com by Phil Vettel
Review: Twain celebrates old women’s-club cookbooks, but menu full of modern twists

Chef Tim Graham was raised in Missouri, a background referenced in numerous and beautiful ways at Twain, the Logan Square restaurant he opened in August with his wife, sommelier Rebekah Graham.

The name refers to the Grahams themselves (twain is an archaic name for “two,” and this is the husband-wife team’s first project together) and author/humorist Mark Twain (real name Samuel Clemens), favorite son of Hannibal, Mo.

Jordan Mozer’s fascinating, pastoral design includes a quilt-inspired, naive-art wall of layered-fabric images from nature — quail and owls, sheep and cows, squirrels, trees and water. “The quilt represents 24 hours along the Mississippi,” Rebekah Graham said. “It starts in the early morning, and the owl at the end is the middle of the night; a blue-suede Mississippi River.”

The hammered-copper wall behind the bar is embossed with jewel-toned, literary homages to Twain works; a frog suggests the “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” and two tall figures represent the Duke and Dauphin from “Huckleberry Finn.” The front area of raised-height tables and bar stools is illuminated by fabric-wrapped lights representing Halley’s comet; die-hard fans know that Twain was born during a Halley’s comet year and died, 75 years later, when the comet reappeared.

Oh my darling, Clemens’ time.

The food is inspired by mid-century, women’s-club cookbooks, which Graham has been collecting since he was very young; he calls the collection “a spiralbound history of where I grew up.” But while the menu celebrates the past, Graham’s cooking is full of modern twists.

Appetizers, for instance, include Ants on a Log, that classic kiddie dish of celery, peanut butter and raisins. “About 35 percent of my books have (that recipe),” Graham said, “but clearly I wasn’t going to do peanut butter and raisins.” Instead, Graham pipes the celery stalks with duck-liver and peanut-butter mousse, and in place of raisins there are bourbon-soaked cherries.

There also are mushroom caps stuffed with smoked cream cheese and topped with Parmesan breadcrumbs, and Sloppy Marrow, a mashup of roasted bone marrow and sloppy Joes — an odd juxtaposition and a visual mess, but tasty enough. The braunschweiger and rye looks pedestrian — a slab of liverwurst with rye bread — but this house-made pate is superior to anything you’ll find at a deli counter.

Listed among the side dishes, but more attractive as an appetizer, is Graham’s twice-baked potato gnocchi, another odd-but-tasty mashup. “Every time I make gnocchi, I throw the skin away,” Graham said, “and my favorite part of a twice-baked potato is the skin.” Thus a hollowed baked potato is filled with soft gnocchi pillows, along with the sour cream, bacon and cheddar one would expect.

Frankly, the appetizers are cute and clever but less than thrilling. The main courses, however, are significantly better. There’s an umami-rich surf and turf of unagi and meatloaf, topped with nori-crusted onion rings and red-miso mashed potatoes; and a pure-Midwest rendering of seared walleye over calico (mixed bean) salad with pickled-egg sauce (sort of a non-emulsified gribiche, per Graham).

Graham again exercises his punmanship with his Pigs in a Blanquette creation, which presents a dry-aged pork chop (the delicious star of the dish) with braised tongue and cheek meat, bound together in a classic, rich and creamy blanquette sauce. The steak and eggs are a neat-freak’s dream, offering discrete piles of skirt steak and pesto, arugula, crisp-fried potato wedges and a fried egg surrounded by pickled quail eggs.

Desserts are simple and rustic. Pastry chef Stefanie Bishop hops aboard the gooey butter cake bandwagon with a version that includes caramel apples and sour-cream ice cream; the hand-cranked ice cream (flavors change daily) is served with Bishop’s “sheet cake of the day,” which on my visit featured fudge-brownie ice cream and a layered chocolate cake with peanut-butter icing.

Twain launched Sunday brunch last week; Graham indulges his spicy side with chorizo hash with potatoes, salsa verde and pickled jalapeno, and the pork shoulder over Bloody Butcher grits (named for an heirloom corn) with poached egg and smoked sour cream has a bit of stealth pepper punch as well. The Florentine breakfast casserole — egg, spinach, tomato — is a hearty dish, and at $6, a real bargain.

Bishop’s baked goodies ($4 each, three for $10) consist of coffee cake with apple butter, cinnamon-raisin monkey bread and a cast-iron, caramel pecan roll that could give Ann Sather’s cinnamon rolls a run for their money.

Rebekah Graham’s wine list is a 50-odd assortment organized by style, rather than varietal or place of origin (trust Graham for expert advice) and prices are exceedingly fair. “We don’t take huge markups on anything,” she said. “I want guests to come in knowing they’ll get what they pay for, that the wine is well worth the price they’re paying.”

pvettel@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @PhilVettel

Twain

2445 N. Milwaukee Ave.

773-697-8463

twainchicago.com

Tribune rating: Two stars

Open: Dinner Tuesday to Sunday, brunch Sunday

Prices: Entrees $15-$26

Noise: Conversation-friendly

Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

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