Even before it opened in June, twinOak Wood Fired Fare was attracting attention. The restaurant wasn't called twinOak at the time, though; its original name was Taste Wood Fired Fare. Taste is a common word, of course — even more so when food is the subject of conversation — but Gerard Craft had already claimed it for his restaurant in the Central West End and wasn't shy about having his attorney remind the Friedrichses of that fact.
Would you want to do battle with St. Louis' most prominent chef? Over a name that, with all due respect to Craft, is kinda ordinary?
In July owners Casey and Curt Friedrichs relented and changed the name to twinOak — fitting, given that they're twin brothers and they fuel their brick oven with oak. Wood Fired Fare remains a part of the name, and the oven, more than anything else, defines this restaurant.
twinOak occupies a strange spot — in theory ideal, in practice a little awkward to reach — on the corner of South Hanley Road and Strassner Drive. You have to turn off Strassner into the small parking lot the restaurant shares with a hotel, a residential building and a Houlihan's. More often than not, this small lot will be full, and you will have to park in the garage at the back of the residential complex.
The restaurant is working to alleviate the situation: There are signs for a valet, and there's even a golf cart to ferry you to your garage spot. The restaurant is also aware that it is hemmed in by chain restaurants: Houlihan's and, on the other side of Strassner, Buffalo Wild Wings, Jimmy John's and Camille's Sidewalk Café. A sign at the entrance declares that twinOak is family-owned, not a chain; another takes a shot at Buffalo Wild Wings, asking whether you want your hot wings wood-fired or deep-fried.
Ironic, then, that the restaurant looks like an upscale chain, sleek but soulless, stone and glass with wood accents. There are splashes of warm red color here and there, and the floor-to-ceiling windows allow for plenty of natural light, but the view they afford is of the traffic on Hanley and that damned Buffalo Wild Wings.
The bar is to your left as you enter the restaurant. It curves away from the unnecessarily large lobby to become the back wall of the dining room proper, opposite the dining tables. The bar stops halfway along this wall and becomes the open kitchen, at the center of which is the brick oven with its licking flames and smoldering oak logs.
(Purists, take note: This oven, built by the Garland, Texas, firm Renato, uses gas as well as wood for fuel.)
Pizza is the food most commonly associated with such ovens — thin-crust pies that cook quickly at very high heat — and pizza is the focal point of twinOak's menu. Pizzas come in one size, about ten inches in diameter. Based on my visits, this is too much for one diner but not enough for two to share; expect leftovers. There are ten "signature" pizzas, or you can build your own, though the menu doesn't provide a list of available toppings.
The "Classic" is the most basic pizza: crust, tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil. The thin crust has enough chew to withstand multiple toppings even at its center. The brick oven imparts its characteristic char in spots — enough to accent, but not overwhelm, the crust's mild flavor. The sauce is disappointing, though; simplistic, and very sweet. The cheese is typical shredded mozzarella, comforting in its gooey familiarity. The basil leaves add a fresh accent, but there aren't many of them.
The more elaborate "signature" pies either balance the sweetness of the tomato sauce or do away with it entirely. The "Gringo Star" adds heat to the tomato sauce and mozzarella with (Mexican-style) chorizo and slices of raw jalapeño. A few pies replace the tomato sauce with a tangy and sweet (but not cloyingly so) barbecue sauce. One, the "CluQ," features roasted chicken, cilantro and red onion. It's hard to find a decent barbecue-chicken pizza, but the "CluQ" is that rare exception.
There are also "Piz-Zandwiches," made by enclosing pizza toppings inside a thinly rolled piece of pizza dough then baking briefly. (Imagine the offspring of a calzone that had sex with a wrap.) The pulled pork "Piz-Zandwich" overflows with tender meat that tastes mostly of barbecue sauce, a bit of mozzarella and entirely too much coleslaw. The crust wrap (cr-wrap?) is just thick enough to hold together, but it doesn't impart much flavor.
Appetizers include wood-fired wings (from the sign, remember?). The wings are plump. Their skin is crisp and golden-brown in some spots, but only very lightly browned in others, suggesting that the wings were put into the oven but not tossed every now and then to ensure a more even browning. A welcome change: The buffalo sauce is tangy and hot but lightly applied and tossed with ground black pepper. Add a hint of smoke, and these have a more sophisticated flavor than the average wing.
The menu categorizes four dishes as "Fork and Knife" — entrées, in other words: two steaks (a rib eye and a filet), a salmon fillet and a chicken breast, all four cooked in the brick oven. Each comes with your choice of one side from a selection that might have been thrown together at random: a half-portion of a salad, a baked potato, broccoli, beets.
I opted for the rib eye, medium-rare. The exterior had a decent char — not the crust you'd get at a steak house, but better than from a conventional grill. The interior was the appropriate temperature at the center, less so toward either end. Melted butter with red-pepper flakes topped the steak. It added a touch of heat, and a boost of sweet fat, but it also cloaked any smokiness the oak might have imparted.
Actually, other than the wings, no dishes here suggested even a hint of smoke. Aside from the pizza, none made a convincing argument for including "wood fired" (or "wood and gas fired") in twinOak's name. A brick oven is a beautiful tool, but it does not a restaurant make.