A new Twist on tapas

Catherall's latest is a tasty treat

Outside of the Buckhead Life group's pricey restaurants, I don't think I've ever seen as ambitious and glamorous a restaurant as Twist open in our city. It's tempting to say the Phipps Plaza location demands a stylish restaurant. But the fact is Twist replaces a grim Italian restaurant infamous in my own memory for being the only place I have left absolutely no tip.

Twist, all 10,000 square feet of it, is another project of Tom Catherall, who has become our city's prince of mall venues. We remember him years ago as the city's best fusion chef at Azalea in Buckhead and in the years since he's given us some wonderful restaurants like Tom Tom, Prime and Noche. (I have never dined at his Perimeter Mall restaurant, Goldfish.)

Catherall's lease at Tom Tom, located at Lenox Square, expired this year and rather than renew, he opted for this new undertaking — an amazing grazing-style "tapas" restaurant — across the street. It's been eight months and $2 million in construction. The designer of the new restaurant is Karel Pruner, whom I'm ready to call our city's most intellectual designer. His design at Prime, where Japanese dishes and steaks are served, is one of my favorites. He practices restraint and, somehow, turns what is fundamentally minimalism into high drama. This contrast of the dramatic detail with spare surfaces and flashes of humor really appeals to me.

If anything inspires this restaurant's look, it's Miami. Some are going to be critical of its gimmick. The main effect, and what an effect it is, is lighting designed by Kistofer Lamey. The main dining room is separated from the kitchen by a long translucent glass wall. One has a vague sense of watching waiters as shadow puppets moving behind the wall. But the wall is even more than a stage. It is a really a huge lamp. It changes colors slowly, casting its glow over the room. Beyond the dining room is the bar area where a huge beaded curtain hangs. A moving, waterfall-like pattern of colors is projected onto the curtain.

You must go at night (although the restaurant is open for lunch). Twist fronts the mall and has plenty of windows so the daylight diminishes the effect. But when the sun sets, you find yourself basically sitting inside the aurora borealis. Tabletops are black — perhaps a bit cold taken apart from their function as a piece of night sky for watching the aurora. All of this — groovy colors and a big beaded curtain — is a bit retro, as is Miami, but I like it. It's so unlike anything else in our city — the closest would be Cherry — it takes a while to really adjust to.

I was nervous about the menu. It's tempting, because it goes in so many directions, to say it's unfocused. But how can you criticize a remarkably cross-cultural menu as unfocused if everything tastes good? Catherall has assembled an amazing crew. Nancy Delgado, who turned Eclipse di Luna into the city's best tapas restaurant, is now here. The sushi chef, Maki, was hired from Hashi Guchi Jr., one of the city's best smaller sushi bars. The head chef is Peter Kaiser, who worked at Pano's and Paul's and the Buckhead Diner before taking over the kitchen at Goldfish. Joan Trotochaud produces the pastries and desserts that have become signature items at Catherall's restaurants.

The restaurant features tapas, sushi, a raw bar and a satay grill. There are sandwiches and salads and a menu of entrees. You can spend $10 or far more, if you really get to grazing. You can graze in the large bar area while you sip $5 specialty martinis made with vodkas stored in the city's only vodka freezer. Or you can eat in the main dining room. (There is also a private dining room.)

The tapas, most of which are $5 and good for sharing, are not really Spanish tapas and that disappointed me. There are a few Spanish dishes, including olives with almonds and the fried potatoes popular throughout Spain, but that's about it. I hope Nancy gets to produce some more authentic tapas. Nonetheless, everything I sampled was delicious. The standout was a sashimi tuna pizza ($9) — a whimsical creation made with a toasted tortilla topped with tuna streaked with wasabi-spiked Japanese mayo, the delicious stuff I could eat like custard. Fried capers and daikon sprouts garnished the pie.

Lamb croquettes with mint raita from the satay grill ($6) were hot and juicy. My only complaint is the inadequately small leaf of lettuce given to wrap the croquettes. Korean barbecued beef ($5) is less spicy than you'll find on Buford Highway but very tender, and the kimchee on the side adds a mild kick. Shrimp dumplings in Thai curry cream ($5) were as good as any I've had in an Asian restaurant.

We both decided to try entrees. I wanted to try the scrambled eggs with créme fraiche, caviar and brioche, but decided I was unwilling to pay its $29 price until I was convinced the restaurant was doing a good job. Instead I ordered a special of four scallops, roasted on a rosemary skewer and served over garbanzo beans with strong Morrocan curry notes. At less than $10, it was a bargain, though it would be inadequate without a small plate beforehand.

Wayne ordered giant Spanish prawns over a white bean ragout ($19). The prawns, a large number and served Chinese style with the heads, were cooked just right though I actually found myself missing the heavy lip-stinging salt coating they often have in Asian restaurants. Nonetheless, I'd say this was my favorite dish of the evening and its spectacular appearance, served in the white dinnerware that is used with every dish, inspired people at a nearby table to order it too.

It's usually impossible to have a bad dessert in one of Catherall's restaurants. We ordered the fruit crisp, made with rhubarb and strawberries, served with buttermilk ice cream ($7). There's also a retro chocolate fondue for sharing ($10), a lemon tart and a coconut flan (both $7). We also sampled the Spanish cheese plate ($7) — featuring that day's pimentino (goat's milk), Idiazabál (raw sheep's milk) and Valedon (a cow's milk blue). Fig bread, the best I've tasted in a long time, was served with it, along with some very rich balsamic vinegar and dry crackers.

Service at the restaurant is good and our server, Robbin, is herewith declared waitron of the week. Like all the other servers, she wore a black T-shirt that says "EAT" on the front and "UP" on the back. Like all the others, too, she looked 12 years old. How do they get to work? Who drives them?

An auspicious opening. I expect Twist will get better and better.

Here and there
I lunched recently on a Saturday with a friend at Agnes and Muriel's on Monroe Drive. We ordered crab omelets that were so tasteless I threatened to revert to the ketchup I put on scrambled eggs as a kid. The crab was pureed into virtual nothingness, though my nice friend comforted our server who glared at me when I complained by saying, "No, really, I get the crab flavor in there. Is it real crab?" Grits were watery and also tasteless. Worst of all, I was still starving when I finished and had to order a mound of toast to kill my hunger. Geez. ...

Sundown Cafe is reprising its Like Water for Chocolate menu soon. Meanwhile, at lunch, George continues to treat customers like grade-school children who need discipline ... and everyone continues to tip him generously for the abuse.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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