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Twisted Thistle 

In Leechburg, a cozy restaurant with above-average fare, reasonably priced

Salmon and maitake mushrooms

Photo by Heather Mull

Salmon and maitake mushrooms

It's no surprise that dining's "fresh, local, seasonal" credo has reached even the small towns beyond the suburbs — in some ways, it probably started there — but Twisted Thistle, in Leechburg, offers an experience truly extraordinary for a small town so far from the urban epicenter of dining chic. Its interior, a restored 1902 hotel warmed by a fireplace and lit by filament bulbs suspended from old farm pulleys, has the cozy comfort of a rustic resort lodge combined with a decorator's flair. As for the menu, a decade ago, it would have been a standout anywhere in the region, and it is not outdated now.

Moreover, such carefully conceived and prepared dishes are astonishing at these prices: filet mignon and organic salmon top out at about $25, and eight entrees, ranging from udon noodles with mushrooms to pork tenderloin with roasted root vegetables, are under $20. Alongside the contemporary American flavors that harmonize with the decor are numerous Asian-inspired dishes, most going well beyond soy-glazed meat or other obvious sops to international cuisine. The udon, for instance, are garnished with nori, and a Thai red curry includes kabocha pumpkin. Indeed, the menu offers remarkable breadth among a comprehensibly brief selection.

Such attention to detail meant that virtually everything we ordered was distinctive. Even a simple plate of spaghetti with chicken, ordered for an unadventurous member of the under-10 set, delivered a simple yet sophisticated combination of olive oil, garlic, lemon and parsley that pleased adult palates, as well. Although Jason found the garlic flavor less than perfectly fresh, this didn't detract from the vividly citrusy, aromatically herbal flavor of the oil, which coated without drowning the nicely al dente noodles. But the real secret to this dish's success was the chicken. It seemed to be a cutlet, sautéed and cut up, resulting in better flavor and texture than the bland grilled breast that's the norm for tossing in pasta. The net result was a dish that any pasta house would be proud of. The same can be said of butternut-squash ravioli, whose homemade wrappers were enhanced by a rich yet delicate sage butter.

Most seafood houses don't offer anything as compelling, let alone as perfectly executed, as Twisted Thistle's appetizer of fried-oyster po' boy sliders. Each little sandwich featured an enormous, succulent oyster, fried in a wonderfully light yet crisp batter, placed on a square of bun that seemed to be a split foccaccia, and topped with lettuce, tomato and a flavorful tartar sauce. The well-rounded flavor and texture profiles made this appetizer enormously satisfying. 

Pumpkin soup, made with kabocha and coconut cream — not milk — and topped with crispy fried shallots and sesame seeds, was perhaps too satisfying. Only a few thick spoonsful of this richly autumnal bowl were filling, but we made sure to bring home what was left. Fried shallots also lent their sweetness to a beet salad with paper-thin slices of pear, salted nuts and lime-juice dressing. Sweet, salty, earthy and tart, this was as intensely colored as it was flavored. Hush puppies, their humble nature dressed up with the rich flavors of a Maytag blue-cheese dressing and dice of thick-sliced bacon, made another intriguing and successful starter. 

A seafood standard served as an entrée, the crab cakes were above average, with plenty of lump crabmeat lightly breaded with extra-crispy panko crumbs and ably complemented by the vegetable medley alongside. Usually, there are few things more pedestrian than restaurant vegetable medleys, but Twisted Thistle's kitchen paid extra attention, rendering zucchini, summer squash, red peppers and mushrooms tender-crisp and well seasoned in butter.

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Twisted Thistle
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Twisted Thistle

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Our server clarified that the "24-hour short ribs" are not, literally, roasted for 24 hours. But however long it took, the preparation resulted in an extraordinary piece of meat. The one we received was no "short" rib, but oversized and Flintstone-scale. And if some of the edges could perhaps have used fewer hours, most of the meat was smoky and enriched with all the melted sinew that makes short rib the beef of the moment. A bed of mashed potato, adorned with roasted beet and beautiful, tender Brussels sprouts, rendered flowerlike by the curling of their outer leaves, lent some refinement to this caveman treat.

Desserts are made locally by an Hungarian baker, resulting in some uniquely Eastern European possibilities for after-dinner delicacies. We tried the tiramisu, which was tall and fluffy, creamy and cocoa-ey, and enough to share among four (albeit very full) people.

With all this, plus Sunday brunch and live music in the bar on Thursday and Friday nights, we can't think of anything not to love about Twisted Thistle.

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