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Thursday, Nov. 1, 2007

The Heart of the City

A twist on a classic location

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The heart of Milwaukee's East Side is the intersection of Farwell and North avenues, an area filled with shops, restaurants and the classic Oriental Theatre. The theater building once housed Oriental Drugs, a classic in its own right, which closed its doors in 1995 after nearly 70 years in business. For the past four years, the old pharmacy has been the site of a casual restaurant and bar called the Twisted Fork.


The owners completely renovated the interior, adding spare woodwork, large windows at the bar and tile floors befitting the 1920s structure. Many patrons gravitate to the bar area. During the warmer months, the windows are opened and outdoor seating proves to be a popular spot as well. The main dining room offers the feel of an art gallery, but I prefer the tables by the windows facing Farwell. No matter where diners sit, they'll find comfortable, upholstered armchairs.


The menu charts a sensible course for the neighborhood, with jumbo hamburgers countered by seafood and vegetarian pastas. It's a good menu for before or after a movie at the Oriental. Appetizers are designed for the bar and salads for the light appetite. One appetizer stands out: poutine, which originated as a French-Canadian version of thin french fries mixed with fresh cheese curds and gravy-an ode to cholesterol. Naturally, there are numerous variations. Twisted Fork's poutine ($8) uses larger, salted fries, melted cheese, crumbled bacon, duck confit, kernels of sweet corn and a dash of chipotle sour cream for a Tex-Mex touch. It's an enormous starter course, made to share with a group.


The category of entrees named "Twisting Forks" includes six pasta dishes and one curry with noodles. A popular choice is penne asparagus pasta ($12). The asparagus is served in tiny pieces bursting with flavor; the pasta glistens with olive oil; fresh basil adds a green hue; pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh mushrooms all make an appearance; and grated cheese tops the serving. You can make this a vegan entree by passing on the cheese.


For something meatier, there is the steak & frites ($15). This is hanger steak, a cut about half as thick as a flank steak, a chewier cut with character. What makes this special is the sauce, a rich reduction of red wine with shallots. The steak is attractively served with frites, carrots and sauteed yellow and green snap beans. The beans are crisp and a tad underdone, though that is still preferable to mushy and overdone.


Entrees are strictly a la carte. If you opt for the house salad ($4), you'll receive field greens with sliced red onions, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and decent croutons. In a feat of admirable candor, the menu indicates which of the nine dressings are made in-house: the Caesar and the vinaigrettes. The tasty mustard vinaigrette is nearly as thick as an aioli.


Four years can be an eternity in the restaurant business, so it is a credit to the Twisted Fork that it has found a successful formula in a competitive neighborhood. Though many miss the noise and clamor of the Oriental Drugs' lunch counter, the Twisted Fork is proving to be a classic of its own. n


Restaurant website: http://www.twisted-fork.com/home.php
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