The Twisted Oak, on the main drag in Tarrytown, has the eWarnest feel of an impassioned up-and-comer with raw talent who hasn’t quite earned his chops. The concept is appealing: upscale farmhouse food (made from as many local ingredients as possible). We’re guessing that means rustic, simple food done really well. That’s what the décor and ambience seem to say. The dark wood floors and tables and the sparse walls are warm and unfussy, though the usually full room could use something to deaden the noise.
Servers discuss the ever-changing menu with passion and knowledge. Unlike many well-trained waiters, however, they don’t just recite a list of ingredients; they actually tell you what to expect. Our waiter described the rabbit garganelle pasta with wild arugula and ricotta salata as very flavorful, but we should know, he explained, that it is the nature of the dish to be very salty. What a smart and enticing warning! The dish was, in fact, so salty that there was little else we could taste.
On our next visit, we were given the same warning about beef-jerky tagliolini. Now, cover your children’s ears, lest they follow our bad example: We ordered it anyway. It just sounded so interesting—and, yes, it was salty—but a well-balanced, slightly addictive, potato-chip kind of salty. A slow-poached egg oozed creamy, golden yolk, saucing the pasta and jerky, while bright chives and lots of black pepper gave the dish pop. The saltiness truly was part of the character of this charming deconstructed carbonara. Our only gripe was with the globs of undercooked egg white that were like a sneeze in the midst of a seduction.
Spicy lobster tagliolini with nduja (hot spreadable salami) and charred Fat Boy Bread Crumbs
And while we’re on the topic of seduction, let’s pay homage to the briciole—pork belly cooked long and slow, the fat seemingly melting into the meat. The tender pork hits your mouth in a show of savory power, and you yield, grateful to the spicy tomato sauce, bitter wild spinach, and sharp saltiness of shredded Locatelli, all of which keep you alert and prevent you from becoming a pork-belly zombie, forever driven by your need for more and more fatty meat.
Others might find love in the sweet, natural beauty of golden and ruby-red beets and graceful sprigs of microgreens—nearly nude but for a gossamer dressing that whispered sweet thoughts while astride a puddle of tangy Ronnybrook Farm Dairy yogurt and gray sea salt.
A mesclun salad may not have been as clever in its approach, but it, too, knew how to strut its stuff. Carpaccio-thin slices of beguiling, mildly spicy, pink and green watermelon radishes got all the visual attention, but their beauty was more than skin-deep—they added another layer of interest to the classic interplay of pungent blue cheese against candied pecans.
Chocolate in a Jar
We had really wonderful dishes, like a moist, meaty duck breast accompanied by a crisp, rich confit leg with bits of preserved lemon over creamy farrotto (a risotto-like dish made with farro). Some, like the crisp-skinned roast chicken with dry meat, were not so great, and one, spring lamb porchetta with mutton-like gamey flavor and unpleasant fattiness, was just awful.
A menu that changes daily is likely to result in this kind of unevenness. It is ambitious for a restaurant to expect to master new fare on a nightly basis, but no one has accused The Twisted Oak’s Chef Michael Cutney, a veteran of respected restaurants in Manhattan (Union Square Cafe, Tabla) and Westchester (42 The Restaurant, Cafe of Love) of resting on his laurels.
Certain “dishes for the table,” as they are labeled in the menu, change less frequently. We were happy to again sample the crispy truffled chickpeas with shards of golden garlic and bits of crispy fried parsley—just to be sure they were as good as we’d remembered. On the other hand, once was enough for the poutine, a French-Canadian dish of potato fries and cheese curds topped with gravy. The Twisted Oak version started with diced potatoes that were undercooked—and, sadly, not crisped—in duck fat, and served over gravy, which was inaccessible for the first several bites, leaving the potatoes and curds undressed.
This, from the same kitchen that created the amusing—and great-tasting—“crispy egg”? It was not only clever in its conception, but artful in its implementation. Just as the deconstructed carbonara dish did, this dish plays with all the elements of a classic—this time, the Caesar salad. It begins with kale tossed with crisp bits of guanciale and sardo and dressed in lemon vinaigrette. But the star sits on top: a breaded whole egg. It looks like an Easter egg, coated in breadcrumbs and flash-fried. One swift flourish with your fork later, the egg is opened and exudes a river of creamy yellow yolk running over and through the kale.
Sausage seems to appear, one way or another, in many dishes—the chef apparently has a predilection for robustly salty fare. Nduja, spicy Calabrian spreadable salami, complemented slow-cooked octopus á la plancha—octopus so tender, we wondered how we could ever have enjoyed all those rubbery versions in our past.
Most of the time, the saltiness worked, but occasionally it went too far. A beautifully seared, moist block of cod sat atop fingerling potatoes in a seafood broth overwhelmed by salty, spicy linguiça sausage. On another night, the cod appeared on the menu with moderately, appealingly salty, whipped olive potatoes and a tomato-confit broth. Again, the cod was moist and tender—and this time, we could taste the mild, sweet flavor of the sea.
Just as sausage plays a major role in The Twisted Oak’s dishes, slow-cooking seems to be the favored cooking method. But it is not the only method. Case in point: flash-fried, crispy-crusted, softshell crabs that were served with herbaceous nettle cream and sweet green peas.
Our wait for the dessert course was not as long as our wait—on both occasions—in between appetizers and entrées. Desserts, like the meals, were a mixed bag—and like the meals, even our least favorites had something interesting about them—often, creative concepts that just needed time to be tweaked into better implementation. Such was the case with sheep’s-milk ricotta zeppole that were really more like fried gnudi. The delicate texture was interesting, but they lacked flavor. Bitter caramel sauce helped, but the zeppole couldn’t stand on their own.
Our favorite dessert was Chocolate in a Jar: deep, dark chocolate pudding was topped with a layer of fluffy, creamy chocolate mousse, topped with chocolate cake crumbs and sea-salt toffee topped with chantilly cream. Four spoons dove in, and four spoons dove right back in again.
And that is the way it is at The Twisted Oak: While there are some misses on any given menu, even those dishes are creative, but simply don’t work. Fortunately, there are even more dishes that are imaginative, well conceived and, most important, delicious. Dining here is an adventure along an uneven, but interesting, path.
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The Twisted Oak
61 Main St, Tarrytown