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Blowing Rock, NC: Twig's - why all the positive hoopla?

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Fiancee and I just returned from some leaf-watching up along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Based upon general consensus on this board over the years, we decided to try Twig's for a nice Friday evening dinner (chosen over Crippen's and Mast Farm Inn). Seriously folks, if Twig's is the best restaurant in the Boone/Blowing Rock/Banner Elk region, that does not speak very highly of the offerings up there.

The interior of the restaurant was decked out quite nicely in Halloween-themed decor., which played off the dimly lit setting and reflections off the glassware. I couldn't help but notice that the building itself seems quite aged...I could detect a moldy odor and the walls and carpeting seemed quite worn. The low lights tended to mask this. I can only imagine that if one were to shine fluorescent lights in there, it wouldn't look much different from the interior of Bullock's in Durham. Another annoyance was the bar, which is set right against the foyer area and directly adjacent the main dining area. My clothes smelled of cigarette smoke by the end of the meal just from the smoke wafting in from the bar. It was also distracting to my tastebuds when trying to enjoy the meal. Now on to the meal itself...

The servers all seemed to be college kids. I overheard one saying that he was an urban planning student at Appalachian State (Boone, NC and urban planning seem to fit about as well together as surfboard crafting in Barrow, Alaska, but anyway, I digress...) Our particular server did not mention any specials to us, so it was only after we ordered that we heard another waiter describing to another table that indeed there were four specials that evening. I found it odd that almost every other table explicitly asked the server what the specials were that evening. Isn't it a given that they are supposed to tell you automatically, or is this something unique to NC that I need to learn to ask?

In any case, we ordered off of the regular menu. Our first course was fried green tomatoes on top of a salad with black-eyed pea relish and a light sweet vinagrette dressing ($9). The tomatoes were lightly battered, and the relish played off the tang of the tomatoes in quite a marvelous way. At this point I was impressed and excited about the rest of the meal. Too bad it was very much downhill from there.

Our "free" garden salads arrived shortly after removal of our appetizer plates. They were pretty much "garden-variety" (excuse the pun) salads, but everything was fresh and the tomatoes were nicely ripened.

The main courses showed an almost alarming lack of skill in the kitchen. My fiancee had a sage chicken breast with melted parmesan cheese on top of a bed of asparagus with a light lemon and dill sauce and a side of baked sweet potato ($17). She took her first bite of the chicken and was visibly disgusted at the overpowering explosion of sage in her mouth. She investigated under the cheese and found that they had LEFT THE ACTUAL UNCHOPPED SAGE LEAVES ON THE CHICKEN BREAST. That's just nasty. You either put the sage in at first and remove them in the cooking process or grind them up into a fine powder and lightly drizzle it on the meat during the marinating process. How could a kitchen of this supposed caliber make so infantile an error?

My main course was roasted grouper with basil pesto and steamed vegetables ($23). My fish was flaky and juicy, although it didn't taste exceptionally fresh and was left somewhat undercooked inside (but not enough for me to go through the trouble of returning the dish). The basil in the pesto was awfully overpowering and certainly did not complement the delicate natural taste of the grouper. I have no idea where they were going with that recipe. My steamed veggies were also peculiar...zucchini, carrots, broccoli, and...chunks of red onion? Weird.

After cleaning off our plates, we set our forks and knifes on the plate in the proper "4 o'clock" position and then waited, and waited, and waited. Hands in our laps. Waited some more. About 10 minutes after finishing our meal, the server finally came by and asked if we were finished. *No, we're just sitting here with empty plates and our silverware together, but really we intend to lick the residue off of our plates in a minute or two.*

A similar puzzling exchange occurred with the bill. The server left, I placed my credit card in the billfold, clearly visible, and left it at the corner of the table. A few minutes later, the waitress came and asked whether she could take the bill up. *Uh, no, we'd rather take it up to the cashier ourselves, or better yet, just give it a few more minutes to sit on the table before taking it up...maybe the tab will magically go down in price."

Perhaps I'm griping more than I should, but...no, I'm not. This meal cost $52 for two without drinks or dessert. At those prices, I expect at least competent service, well-timed courses, and quality of food many steps above what I could prepare in my own kitchen. The restaurant was full. I can only wonder whether others who live in that area actually consider this quality of food to be "gourmet." If that's the case, that's a sad reality. Seriously, Outback Steakhouse is a few times better.

I need to stop going out for "pricier" meals outside the Triangle. I have not yet done so in the Triangle proper, and I've been caught with my pants down twice now, the first being the $68 atrocity of a meal we had a few weeks ago at South Beach Grille in Wrightsville Beach, NC. All this while JujuBe, Lantern and others still await my visitation.

I guess it's audacious of me to expect to find a good meal out in the "country." I'm still too used to California, where the "country" equates to Napa/Sonoma Valley and better restaurants than in the city proper.

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  1. I have owned a summer home in the region for over ten years and have never heard of a local put Twigs at the top of a list. Sorry you had such a bad experience. I have not been to Twigs and won't plan on it anytime soon.

    Some of my suggestions are Wildflower (Boone), Bestceller (Blowing Rock and Linville) and Morel's (Banner Elk). There is a new Italian restaurant in downtown Boone (next to Wilcox Emporium) that has been getting great word-of-mouth.

    1. Sorry to hear about your meal. Not long ago when we were in the mountains I recall thinking that more than anything else, NC is lacking the cool little gourmet cafes and such that are rather typical of small quaint towns in CA. Name a little town in a pretty area of CA, and I can assure you that you'll at least find a good cup of coffee and a decent pastry. Often times there'll be some find of a restaurant run by some foodie couple that escaped from the city.

      My guess is that we're not that far on the evolutionary food journey. Right now, chefs are escaping other urban areas for the urban areas of NC, which speaks for the fact that the triangle scene is growing. At somepoint, I suppose people will start escaping the triangle itself and you'll end up with good spots in the country. I'd imagine that I hope to be one of those people as I love the mountains of NC.

      At any rate, FWIW, when I worked at Oliveto in Oakland, they put whole sage leaves in the chicken saltimbocca, so that might not be such a cut and dry rule of cooking. Curious, I googled the dish and found that, while most recipes listed called for chopped or dried, one or two included whole leaves. Honestly, I'm not sure which is traditional. I, for one, am not a big fan of sage so I can certainly relate to an aversion to coming across a bit bite of it.

      1. Honestly, when I read your post, I thought it was pretty funny. If a whole sage leaf, fish a bit rare (I prefer mine that way), and a piece of red onion are the worst things you can say about your food, you have hit on a rare find.

        Most restaurants, even (and perhaps especially) "fine dining" ones that are found outside the bigger cities in the south are pretty mediocre. Or bad. Comparing the rural Carolinas to Napa makes me chuckle.

        2 Replies
        1. re: danna

          I have a hard time believing that you actually read the entire post and came away thinking his only beef was "a whole sage leaf, fish a bit rare, and a piece of red onion".

          1. re: detlefchef

            Why yes, actually. I have read, and re-read, and the only other food-related complaint I find is the comment that "the basil in the pesto was awfully overpowering". I find that comment pretty ridiculous, given that pesto IS 95% basil.

            Yes, he found the place smokey and the service inexperienced and slow. I said "food".

            I'm not saying the place is good...I have not been there. I'm saying that if you go out to eat in little rural towns, I don't care if they are touristy or not, you are likely to get crappy food, I don't care how many people tell you it's wonderful. This place sounds like it's probably better than most. In my experience, most people are taken in by the beauty of an area, the charm of a restaurant's surroundings, an ambitious-sounding menu, and fail to notice they've been served slop at an elevated price.

            Frankly, if he had said "the fried tomatos were greasy, the salad was full of slimy lettuce and drowned in dressing, the fish was a week old, and the chicken was smothered by some sort of unholy oily stuff that apparently passes for cheese" THAT would be what I was expecting to hear. That's the way my attempts at finding new places usually go.

            Really, i'm not trying to be unpleasant toward the OP, merely offer practical advice. I would search out the funky/organic/ethnic/casual genre of restaurant. In this area, those seem to be more evolved. The fine dining places are still trying to be "continental" . I have checked out the Twigs menu online, and it appears to be a discombobulated mish-mash of southern, asian fusion and continental. I note with interst the pimento cheese is served w/ drawn butter, and I'd like for someone to explain to me how that works. I also think it's possible, from the description and the photo, that someone is confused about what duck "confit" actually is.

            Anyway, Mike, I hope your leaf-watching was more enjoyable than your dining.

        2. More than the "mistakes" in the preparation, it was just a sense that the quality of the food did not come anywhere near the price that we paid. $52 for two for a shared appetizer, two entrees, no dessert, and no wine deserves more than just basic home cooking and amateur service.

          May I ask...what was I paying for if not the atmosphere, service, or culinary skill? Charge $10-13 for entrees, and then you won't hear me complaining. But if you charge more, it is not wrong of customers to expect more.

          To wit, a restaurant like this would NOT survive in the Triangle, I'm sure. I'm all about competition, and a perfectly competitive market introduced to the Carolina High Country would put restaurants like these out of business. I am not a fan of epicurean monopoly introducing the "holdup" problem to visitors by forcing them to pay exorbitant prices for underwhelming food...period.

          1. I have always enjoyed Twig's and have recommended it to others. It is not one of the "top" restaurants in the area, Crippens, Morel's, Best Cellar are the top restarants. Twig's provides good food at half the price of what you would pay at the finer restaurants. Unfortunately, it cost 50 dollars to go to a TGIF Fridays or similiar restaurant these days. I do agree about that smelly green carpet , that needs to go.

            1. I have enjoyed Twigs in the past and have recommended it to others. I agree with you on the appearance and the owners need to continue their efforts, it actually has improved over the past several years as the building is quite old. I would definately recommend an earlier dinner to avoid the noisey bar. Smoking is in deed a problem and I am unsure what the owners are willing to do to make the dinner crowd feel more comfortable. I agree in that it is certainly not one of the best restaurants in the area and would recommend that you try Bistro Roca is you are looking for similar. It is a non-smoking facility and the building was professionally renovated prior to the opening. The food is quite good and creative.

              1. If you're looking for a really great meal in the high country, I would suggest the Mast Farm Inn in Valle Crucis or The Gamekeeper in Blowing Rock. I've never heard Twigs recommended as a quality meal.

                1 Reply
                1. re: pernelle

                  The best place to eat in the high country is Artisanal at Tynecastle. They are using and preparing food like no others in the area. The owners' (husband & wife team) experience and training is far above anything that has ever been in the Boone, Blowing Rock and Banner Elk area. Do not get me wrong, the restaurants talked about previously are good for that area but Artisanal is at another level.

                2. I have to say, I was a little surprised at your conviction about the proper use of sage leaves. I have seen many a recipe employ the herb whole, torn, shredded, etc. I don't think the skill of the kitchen should be questioned simply because the sage was left in tact. I happen to love the employ of this "infantile error" in a hearty serving of Saltimbocca. If your wife is not a great fan sage, perhaps she should not have ordered a dish in which it was featured. I couldn't help but chuckle aloud when you dubbed the cooks incompetent for such a small and completely preferential thing.
                  That being said, I have been to Twigs before, but not to dine. I found the menu unexciting, and knew the dining room left much to be desired. We go to enjoy loud live music and a lively, crowded bar some Saturday nights. For this purpose, the dated setting is sufficient, but certainly not nice enough to justify the prices charged for the food. I agree with you that the place needs some work, and like everyone else, would not quote it as one of the great dining destinations in the area. It is a local favorite, but I think that has more to do with the "extreme casual" air of the place, if you will.
                  By the way, most of the people who work as servers in this area are college students...although I don't think that is a circumstance unique to our little corner of the world.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: shaymanda

                    Yeah, I respectfully wonder if the OP confused sage leaves w/ bay leaves in thinking that they must either be removed after cooking or ground fine.

                    1. re: shaymanda

                      Then maybe it wasn't the form in which it was employed generally speaking, but the form and quantity specific to this dish. When one herb completely overwhelms the taste of all other ingredients in a particular dish, then it is way out of balance. In this dish's particular incarnation, there was no right way to use a whole sage leaf that would allow it to succeed except to remove it before plating.

                      The cooks' errors were so much more than the sage, which you can see from my original post. In fact, out of all the restaurants at which I've dined over the years for which my bill has ended up around that price, Twig's was one of the worst. No getting around that.

                      As for college students and service, I came from a town (Tallahassee) that sees the vast majority of its servers, even in fine dining establishments, to be college students. Believe me, just because they are college students does not preclude their ability to offer top-notch service. However, it does imply the need to TRAIN them well at first blush, because this may be their first gig or not their primary long-term aspiration. Twig's clearly failed in this regard.

                      Anyway, in sum, I went into Twig's expecting it to be one of the best restaurants in that area. That was the level of anticipation that I'm assuming was one I never should've had in the first place, but various Chowhound threads mentioned Twig's in that capacity. I clearly was looking for a different kind of experience that only served to heighten the disappointment when it didn't live up.

                      1. re: mikeh

                        I have not tried Artisanal at Tynecastle but have tried several others in the area. I have found the high end restaurants universally.........disappointing. Two of my most disappointing restaurant experiences happened in Banner Elk. I say go for the mid to low level, predictable restaurants and you will be better off- BBQ joints, The Corner Palate and Daniel Boone Inn type stuff.

                        1. re: mikeh

                          Being from Wilmington, I'd like to know what was so terrible about South Beach Grill at Wrightsville Beach? Have heard lots of good things but have not been yet.

                      2. The crab cakes at Twigs are some of the best! I do agree about the stinking carpet,,and I think the prices are VERY fair! If you want "FINE" , VERY expensive dining, try ROLANDS @ Westglo spa,,the food is wonderful,,and the prices are more than New Yorks' finest!

                        1. Well I think it gets better every time I go,and Doug the owner even came by our talbe to welcome us! I was overly impressed!!!!! Just a great place with a fun lounge for later!

                          1. I have eaten at Twigs at least 3-4 times and always have had a very good meal. The crab cakes are outstanding. The service at times can be slow, but the quality of the food is very good. In my opinion the prices are also reasonable. I am sorry that you had such a negative experience.