A mixed feed bag at Twist and Turn

Howard County can be proud of the fact that there are a number of interesting little individually owned eateries that provide sustenance for locals who live a tad outside the plethora of "usual" Columbia and Main Street, Ellicott City, haunts.

Such a "hidden" treasure is the Twist and Turn Tavern in the Highland Crossing Center, which is basically at the crossroads of routes 108 and 216. The Tavern is just over two years old now, and while it is enjoying a certain success, the four owners have hired (read: "strongarmed" ) long-time friend and restaurateur Chris Burke to be the new general manager. His task is to tweak the menu, the kitchen, and the front of the house as well.

As far as the kitchen is concerned, Burke has promoted former line cook Joseph Altobelli, a culinary school graduate, to head up back-of-the-house activities and coordinate with Burke to create "new" dishes, while retaining those goodies that have proved most popular with a steadily growing cadre of regulars.

There aren't any current plans to change the décor in the cozy 70-seat restaurant. There's a whole lot of wood here. You can eat at the bar. You can eat at some high-top tables near the bar, and you can eat at regular-height tables in the main dining area, which is separated from the "sports" bar — lots of televisions and team pennants — by a low wooden divider topped by etched glass featuring horses.

Ergo, while sports are a focus at the Tavern, it is equestrian sports that hold pride of place. Two kinds of equestrian sports, mostly. And the place abounds with photos of both of them.

One of them is the Sport of Kings, thoroughbred racing. The other is the sport of choice of one of the owners, who traveled the rodeo circuit in his younger days. Indeed, the name Twist and Turn evokes the tactics a successful bronco or bull rider has to use to stay atop whatever wild-eyed beast he has been assigned at a given competition.

Rotating specials

We'd heard about the "horsey" theme here and were half expecting to see Stetsons, plaid shirts, dungarees and cowboy boots. Nah, on the Tuesday evening we visited, everyone looked pretty suburban to us.

Whatever the décor, Twist and Turn is still a tavern, or pub, if you like. The menu features appetizers you've come to expect: regular and sweet potato fries, Maryland crab dip, wings, fried calamari, even mini crab cakes. Basic prices run $4 to $12.

There's a trio of quesadillas ($9-$12), which can easily serve as a main course. Plus a few soups, including a du jour, and a quintet of salads, each of which can serve as a main course with the addition of some kind of protein (chicken, steak, shrimp or Ahi tuna).

And there are four specialty burgers (Tuesday is half-price burger night), nine sandwiches — including salads, wraps, subs — as well as seven entrée combos, including steaks, chicken fajitas and a quartet of seafood offerings.

It's quite a comprehensive example of pub fare. And virtually all of the items on the menu, and several that don't (e.g., prime rib), appear again in an extensive listing of specials that rotate weekly, including Sunday, but not Saturday. These offerings including an appetizer, several lunchtime choices, and, of course, dinner.

Already added to the bill of fare is a "Healthy Choices" page featuring such "contemporary" healthy options as grilled portabella sandwich, a veggie sub, grilled salmon and chicken primavera. These, too, are reasonably priced.

So then …

Our server, we heard later, was among the "new kids." Perhaps whoever was in the kitchen was too. Consequently, several items that should have been more to our likings, weren't. That's not to say the food isn't good here.

The Slider Twists and Turns ($9) featured three little sandwiches: one with shrimp salad, one with Buffalo-style chicken and one cheeseburger. The shrimp salad featured plump shrimp in mayonnaise with some celery, etc. Very nice, albeit somewhat peppery. The Buffalo chicken was to have come with blue cheese. The kitchen sent gouda instead. Satisfactory for someone who wants the ultimate in fiery fare; be sure to specify "mild" when ordering this one. And the burger … again some miscommunication. We wanted a bacon cheeseburger combination. We just got burger and cheese. A good example, but … Plate garnishes included pickle spears and tomato slices. We appreciated the touch.

On the other hand, fried calamari ($9) were plentiful, crispy, golden little morsels with virtually no grease. A warm "signature" marinara sauce for dunking was thick, red and featured nicely balanced herby flavor.

And Cowboy Don's Tuna Morsels ($9), from the new Healthy Choices section was arguably the best dish we tried that evening. Plenty of thin-sliced seared, spicy, sushi-grade tuna lovingly arranged on a bed of mesclun sided with sushi lovers' favorites: pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce.

Our meat maven's choice this half-price burger night was the bison burger ($13, usually, $6.50 that Tuesday), topped with pepper jack cheese, sautéed peppers and onions. With lettuce, tomato, sweet onion and fries on the side.

The big, big burger was perfectly cooked to medium-rare, meaty, moist and, happily to our taster, leaner than regular beef. Of course, he counterbalanced the "lean" objective with fries covered in house chili (good, chunky, spicy).

A chicken quesadilla ($9) served nicely as a main course. Four Mexican-style super-stuffed, "grilled cheese" wedges held marinated, grilled chicken, grilled peppers and onions, sweet corn, bell peppers and both jack and cheddar cheeses. Plated atop shredded lettuce, with Spanish rice on the side, along with sour cream, guacamole and a pico de gallo salsa. Good tasting, and rather more than was expected in a quesadilla. "Interesting" was our taster's comment.

From the main-course combo choices, one guest opted for fish and chips ($14). This was a 10-ounce piece of golden, crisp, "meaty," mild haddock, much preferred over cod for frying (in our opinion). 10 ounces is huge; Burke says they call it a "tongue." ) And lots and lots of crisp, hot pommes frites. Lemon wedges and some tartar sauce were on the plate. Nothing else. When questioned about lack of garnish, Burke said they'd had complaints from kids who didn't like the "green stuff" on the plates. Pah!

Some go-with coleslaw arrived after a request from our somewhat forgetful server. Creamy, crisp, classic — nothing special, really.

And finally, also from the entrees section, a "Signature Crab Cake" dinner (single, 6-ounce cake, $19). The accompanying fries were hot and crisp. The green beans that came were perfectly crisp-tender, bright green, yummy. The crab cake, purported to be made from lump crab was nicely cooked, with virtually no filler, just sweet crab, but nary a lump in sight.

Along with a kids section, the menu also boasts some simple desserts: ice cream, brownie with ice cream, ricotta cheese cake, specialty pies (du jour, we presume). Since we were all so full, and three of us even taking some food home …

We look forward to going to Twist and Turn Tavern again, and seeing the changes that are rapidly taking place. More specials, we're told. More seafood, more Italian specialties, both northern and southern. It's nice to see a local restaurant striving to make its regulars happier and to attract more diners. So there's live music here on Fridays and Saturdays. And karaoke nights, too.

Besides the focus on making the menu a bit more upscale, there's another that Chris Burke mentioned, and that's the intention on appealing to those of us who are "35 and up." Yippee!

The Twist and Turn Tavern (301-854-2170, is at 13380 Clarksville Pike, Highland Shopping Center, Highland.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad