Restaurant Review - Hip and home-style

Twang’s barbecue ribs, grilled fish and weekend brunch standout among otherwise muted New Southern offerings

Like German tourists in Venice comparing menus in restaurant windows, we chose Twang for dinner on the basis of its posted offerings. The East Atlanta newcomer’s specialties — fried catfish, pork chop, grilled tuna with sugar snaps and grits cakes — appealed to Southern boys and Northerners alike. So did the entree prices, which average $11-$12. So, ultimately, did the food itself.

Just two tables were occupied early on a Wednesday night. But that didn’t deter us. (Nor was the restaurant busy during two subsequent visits. Yet owners Jeffrey Yeager and David Walker say they plan to open a branch in the northern suburbs. Go figure.)

Only yesterday, Twang was called Kiva. In line with the neighborhood, the decorative scheme is flea-mart chic: mismatched dining room sets, autopsy art on the walls and a full bar and kitchen in the back. When we sat down, the sound system was mainlining head-banger trash. When the server inquired what we’d like to start with, we asked if we could start with less noise or even no noise. Bingo. The guy climbed a ladder and clicked a switch. Off went the head-banger. We all grinned, liking Twang and its hip, amenable staff already.

Two of us ordered the pan-fried catfish with spicy strawberry sauce, black-eyed pea hushpuppies and grilled broccoli ($12). Another guy wanted grilled tuna ($13). The fourth man sprang for grilled salmon with brown sugar-pecan butter ($12).

A minute or two after the server retreated to the kitchen, chef Yeager appeared at my elbow. The catfish on hand was iffy, he said, and he’d rather not serve it. Fresher catfish was thawing, he added, but it would take a while to finish.

I asked him to compare the pork chop ($12) and the baby back ribs ($10 per half rack, $15 per whole rack). Both are accompanied by a loaded baked potato, which that night was a good but small-to-medium size spud, and a vegetable but no bread.

Yeager replied that he’d bought some killer pork chops at Harry’s Farmers Market in Alpharetta that day and what about chops instead of cats — with ribs on the side? Yeager explained that he’s worked in Memphis and that Twang’s barbecue ribs recipe — first they’re steamed, then grilled with sauce — is his own special secret. What could we do but agree?

The baby backs were served as an appetizer for the table. The six ribs were falling-off-the-bone tender, with a nice sweet sauce and very little fat or excess salt. We liked them a lot. I’m looking forward to second and third helpings.

The T-bone pork chop I liked less. Though marked with an attractive crosshatch char pattern, it was a little too dry and lacked flavor. (It tasted better cold the next day.) Green flat beans had even less flavor than the chop.

The grilled salmon, an adequate rather than overgenerous portion, was moist but warm inside, attractively caramelized outside and served on stone-ground grits. Marinated tuna, cooked medium, was about the same modest size, equally well handled and moderately delectable.

I came back a week later to check out starters and the strawberry catfish. Better I hadn’t bothered. The catfish, competently fried, was nothing you couldn’t get at Piccadilly Cafeteria. The syrupy fruit sauce wasn’t very spicy and did little for the fish. Black-eyed pea “hush puppies,” heavy and greasy, tasted baked, not fried. Starters were no better. Three-onion soup reminded me of dry mixes to which boiling water and a plastic spoon are added ($3). Iceberg lettuce with blue cheese and red onion was swamped by an unsubtle vinaigrette ($4).

Twang’s New Southern aspirations are better displayed at weekend brunch. Upbeat service is a welcome eye-opener. Eggs Twang — poached eggs on a split biscuit with thin-sliced country ham, cream gravy and yam-Idaho-rosemary-garlic hash browns — are quirkily attractive and well behaved ($7). A kitchen-sink omelet — tomatoes, cheese, mushrooms, peppers and so on, served with a biscuit — is equally acceptable and forgettable ($8). Small cups of hard, packaged-tasting cut fruit on both plates add more roughage than interest.

Twang is that kind of restaurant — comfy, idiosyncratic, a blend of old shortcuts and New Southern, with barbecue ribs and grilled fish to dream about and lesser items to ignore forever after. You’ve been there before, and when you’re in the right mood and short of cash, you want more of it. Call it home ... or whatever.

Contact Elliott Mackle at 404-614-2514 or