My friend shrieks excitedly in my ear and motions through the throbbing masses to a compact, bouncy young blonde. She's clutching a cocktail amidst a cluster of similarly attractive women, but she seems sober enough tonight. Though I've never watched "The Bachelor," Twist is the one place in this city I'd most expect to spot a love-connection reality-show contestant.
Twist at Phipps Plaza is the latest shopping mall phantasmagoria from Tom Catherall, who also owns Prime in Lenox and Goldfish in Perimeter. The place looks like something straight out of Boogie Nights (slap a pair of roller skates on Amber and she'd make an excellent stand-in for Heather Graham). All the angles and bold colors make your hand twitch for a drink. A wall of beads shimmers in the packed rotunda bar. Tinted glass, behind which colored lights slowly change hue, conceals the kitchen from the main dining area. There's a sushi bar near the entrance from the mall, with droopy phallic light fixtures just like the ones at MF Sushi.
I must be an old fogey before my time, because the sound level in here drives me fucking nuts. One Midtown Kitchen seems like a museum cafe compared to this. The noise never really dies down -- God knows I've tried to find a quiet mealtime here. Monday evening? Mid-week lunch at 3 p.m.? Nope. Just as cacophonous. And yet, I can't deny that this earsplitting atmosphere is exactly what many people-gazing Atlantans consider a fun time out. Have at it, y'all.
It seems like a slew of folks never make it past the bar, but it's in the sitting down to eat that I find my most pleasurable moments here. Give the hostess your name and wait for your light-up beeper (this is a mall, remember) to announce your table. The menu, under the direction of Chef Peter Kaiser, is all about sharing -- tapas, satay, dividable salads, splitable entrees. Prices are seductively low, so just jump in and start ordering.
Shrimp dumplings ($6) come with a feisty Thai curry that will have you double dipping. Crispy, paprika-dusted fried potatoes with smooth romesco sauce ($4) are tasty and filling if you're starving or on a budget, but a pile of these morsels also accompany the sandwiches (a server neglected to mention this one night), so watch out for spud overkill.
The fried pastry of the chicken empanada ($7) is wonderfully thin and its contents deftly spiced, but the real treat on the plate is the tomato and hominy stew underneath. Lamb croquettes ($7) have improved since the restaurant first opened: Leaves of Bibb lettuce are now big enough to make generous wrappers around the meat, which you douse with palate-calming yogurt raita.
Like the small plates, entrees are designed to please the multitudes, yet what they lack in novelty they often make up for in careful execution. An unadventurous sounding wild mushroom and ricotta ravioli ($12) rolls out a surprising depth of flavor -- credit the veal jus with which the bowl is laced and saline shards of pecorino scattered on top. Three giant prawns ($19) are satisfying unto themselves, but a sprightly ragout of white beans and diced vegetables covering the plate underneath elevates the dish to a springtime treat.
Some menu items taste of chain restaurant conceptions (which, granted, is not wholly inappropriate to a mall eatery). A creamy Chinese chicken salad ($12) with cabbage and snow peas has California Pizza Kitchen written all over it. It's crispy but bland; the mustard in the dressing needs to be cranked up. And the rolls on the sushi menu take their cue from RuSan's -- lots of fried sea critters, creamy fillers and sweet glazes. Look for purer creations like the Rainbow roll ($11.95) for a satisfying raw fish fix.
Everyone I know who's been to Twist asks me, "Did you get that fruit thing with the ice cream for dessert?" Yes I did. It's a strawberry-rhubarb crisp with house-made buttermilk ice cream ($7), and it's lovely. I'm crossing my fingers that those fruits will revolve with the seasons.
Twist has a drink menu that's more extensive than the food selections, but it's just as fun. The rangy wine list starts at $22 ($6 by the glass) and goes on up to a $208 bottle of Dom Perignon. The night my friend spies Amber and her crew, they look to be nursing the signature $5 martinis everyone in the bar is quaffing. The bar blends some colorful concoctions including Mother's Milk, a Freudian mix of Blood Orange Charby, Triple Sec and unfiltered sake.
After the Amber sighting, I go home, hop on the Internet and discover that our bachelorette in question is partial to The Olive Garden. Ouch. I'm glad Sister Girl has found her way to a scene that actually serves some original food that is remarkably accomplished for its clubby atmosphere. Too bad The Bachelor didn't choose her, but maybe in Twist's teeming throng she'll find her Prince Charming after all. She'll have to lean in mighty close, though, to catch his whispered sweet nothings.