I don't have a problem with a ranch-dressing-themed restaurant. In fact, I actually kind of like the idea — not from some deep-rooted love of the condiment (I'm a blue cheese kind of gal), but because it speaks to the current zeitgeist of hyper-specialization. We can visit toast shops and cafes serving only Belgian fries. There's even a place in New York dedicated exclusively to rice pudding. In this sense, Twisted Ranch is an anti-hipster mirror: We can peer at our penchant for the particular even as we get a glimpse of just how far this trend could go.
Which is why Twisted Ranch, as it stands, is a missed opportunity. Instead of embracing its punchline status, the folks behind the three-month-old Soulard restaurant, Chad Allen and Jim Hayden, insist it isn't a joke.
Inundated with media attention and mockery, the first-time restaurateurs laughed, but insisted that they were a "real" restaurant. There would be no bubbling pots of ranch-dressing fondue, they assured us — just a creative use of the seasoning blend on real-deal dishes, crafted by a legitimate chef.
But that's the thing: If you're going to open a ranch-dressing restaurant, open a Ranch Dressing Restaurant, goddammit. Give us the theater of the absurd and drench us in ranch-covered irony. Greet us with ranch-filled Champagne flutes and let us refill them in a ranch fountain. Dress your staff as cowboys and cowgirls, and have them shoot ranch-filled Super Soakers all over our ranch-seasoned fries. Allen and Hayden could have really gone for it, but they refrained — and that is Twisted Ranch's downfall. It's not bad. It's just boring — a gimmick that refuses to be gimmicky.
The restaurant sits on the corner of Eighth and Lafayette in the spot that formerly housed Sassy Jac's. Aside from the dark-green walls (evocative of dill or parsley, perhaps), there is little obvious thematic décor. Tables, a mix of half-banquettes and high-tops, are stainless steel, and an old-fashioned wooden bar takes up a large portion of the restaurant's real estate. Behind the bar, letters spell out the word "Ranch" against a wooden wall. So does a maze-like 3-D mural made from PVC pipes that looks like it might transport dressing from some Hidden Valley mothership into the kitchen.
Allen and Hayden enlisted chef Johnathan Tinker to help execute Twisted Ranch's menu. Every single item on offer involves the condiment in some form, though the dishes coming out of the kitchen are no longer Tinker's handiwork. The chef walked out twenty minutes into the restaurant's soft opening. He later claimed the owners had no idea what they were doing. (Apparently, one fryer at a ranch-themed restaurant was not enough. Go figure.)
A chef's touch remains in the form of thoughtful condiment and seasoning use, though dishes rarely rise above average bar food. It's hard to see how it could be otherwise, considering that the concept is dedicated to an unremarkable spice blend that barely rises above seasoned salt in mayonnaise (which, let's be honest, is why we guiltlessly smother it on our fries).
And so the ranch bloody mary was nothing more than a salty bloody mary. To the disappointment of my colleague, the drink did not contain a lava-lamp-style dollop of ranch dressing suspended in tomato juice. Instead, Twisted Ranch infuses its spice blend into vodka much like the garlic- or pepper-infused versions. It makes a fine enough base for the hangover drink, but the novelty element exists only in theory.
Some dishes worked. Fried green beans impressed. The vegetables are dusted with ranch-seasoned cornmeal and fried so that they retain a snappy texture. The recommended dipping sauce — the "Kemowasabi" ranch — may have a ridiculous name, but it makes an excellent, piquant accompaniment.
Buffalo chicken dip is exactly what you'd want in the midst of a booze-fueled night. The creamy, Louisiana hot-sauce-spiked dip is flecked with pulled chicken and topped with molten cheddar-jack cheese. No, it's not haute cuisine, but there is something satisfying about dipping a jumbo corn chip into this bubbling crock of coronary-inducing comfort. Similarly, the "Loaded Tots" could have been concocted by Cheech and Chong. The deep-fried potato nuggets are smothered in bacon bits, cheddar-jack cheese and scallions — the quintessential trashy bar food. And I must admit that I liked them even more covered in zesty, housemade buttermilk ranch.
I give Twisted Ranch credit for making its own flatbread dough rather than simply buying frozen shells. The result is a thick, pillowy crust that serves as a sturdy base for a variety of toppings. The "Veggie Pesto," smothered with sun-dried tomatoes, broccoli, fresh spinach and feta cheese, is a delightful Mediterranean-style pie, though the basil from the pesto sauce and pesto ranch drowns out the other flavors. The "BBQ Pork" is equally respectable. Granted, the sweet and barely smoky "smoked" pork is reminiscent of at-home Crock-Pot pulled pork, but it's adequate for a bar pizza topping. Unfortunately, the kitchen was heavy-handed with the ranch coleslaw topping, leaving the flatbread soggy.
"Cheesy Bacon Ranch" sauce spikes an otherwise traditional béchamel on the "Big Kid Mac and Cheese." It would have been good on its own, but the kitchen decided to line the bottom of the dish with flavorless beef brisket. It added nothing. And the St. Louis classic Gerber sandwich is a misfire. The mayonnaise-based condiment that's used instead of butter fails to soak into the bread. The result is a sandwich that lacks the original's all-important goo factor.
These issues are minor compared to the "Twisted Ranch Burger." My expectations sank when I asked for a temperature and the server informed me it would be served "somewhere around medium or medium well." What arrived was a leaden, well-done puck that was like eating a fast-food burger rewarmed in the microwave. Ranch seasoning on the patty and the paprika-spiked dressing did little to salvage this disaster.
I'd say the reason it took over an hour to get my food was because they were basically tanning my burger into shoe leather, but alas, it was equally slow on a second visit. Apparently, Tinker was right — one fryer isn't enough at a ranch-dressing restaurant, though from what I could see of the kitchen a second one wouldn't fit. My glimpse through an open window revealed a space that is no larger than a galley kitchen you'd find in a 400-square-foot Manhattan apartment. It's difficult to see how Allen and Hayden can do anything more than add some ranch enhancements to ready-made fare that comes out of a Sysco truck.
For their sake, I hope the restaurateurs can figure out a way to execute their menu in a manner that doesn't cause patrons to anxiously watch the clock. But do I really see myself going back to find out? Perhaps if Twisted Ranch were more of a joke I'd be inclined to take out-of-towners or ranch-loving friends for the novelty factor the same way I'd ironically go to, say, Medieval Times dinner theater.
When the pair announced they were opening the place last March, it seemed like it might be just that. They had a sense of humor about the place, after all — acknowledging, and even laughing, at the fact that they were being ridiculed by national media for their concept.
However, in its effort to prove that it's not a laughingstock, Twisted Ranch has lost its sense of humor. In its place is a subpar Soulard bar that's trying to be serious. Instead of a ranch-dressing restaurant, Twisted Ranch is a restaurant that uses ranch dressing — and there is nothing novel about that.