Bitter and Twisted, on the ground floor of the Luhrs Building in downtown Phoenix, is a gorgeous room. The former home of the state’s Prohibition headquarters, it’s tricked out with tall, tufted, ornate booths on one side and a long, dark bar on the other. In between, a lovely blend of marble and exposed brick and concrete is always bathed in a soft glow of light: by day, from sunlight filtering through windows on Central Avenue; by night via beautiful industrial lighting fixtures that dangle above each table.
The work of veteran barman Ross Simon and partner Bob Tam, known for rethinking bar food with an Asian flair, Bitter and Twisted is first and foremost a bar. The cocktail menu is 24 pages long, while the food menu is a single page. On our first visit, the hostess — perhaps because we were a pair of rumpled, middle-aged men — greeted us by telling us she only had room for us at a community table, at which a party of four was canoodling. Peering past her into a largely empty dining area, we spotted three empty community tables and a pair of unoccupied booths. We asked for one of these, instead, and were told that the booths “were no longer seating at this time.” It was just after seven in the evening. We requested one of the empty community tables. Rolling her eyes, our young hostess replied, “Fine, but if anyone else comes in, I’ll have to seat them with you.” We wondered if the other community tables were reserved, but our hostess didn’t reply. They remained empty throughout our visit.
We forgot about our surly introduction once we’d ordered a bowl of Hurricane Popcorn, a genius bar food that we finally had to banish from the table — it was so delicious, and there was so much of it, we feared we’d keep eating and have no room for dinner. Generously buttered and spiced with garlic, schichimi, and nori, this crunchy corn was tossed with sesame and spicy rice crackers for an extra crunch.
An order of the house pâté — listed not among the appetizers but among the sides, for some reason — was also tasty, if insubstantial. This tiny ramekin of grainy, rich chicken liver spread was served with a generous helping of tasty, chewy brown bread from Noble bakery. Buttery and smooth, it was more a mousse than a traditional pâté.
The pretzel burger was excellent. The nice, meaty puck of ground sirloin had a freshly grilled flavor complemented by a runny fried egg. The soft, fresh-baked pretzel bread croissant was the best part of this first-rate sandwich.
An order of Seoul fried chicken, on the other hand, was a limp disaster. A half-dozen lumps of cold dark-meat chicken were crisply breaded but flavorless. Each was dotted with a glob of cheese gravy, also cold, and the whole mess rested on a bed of watermelon kimchi, which provided little in the way of flavor but plenty of puddled juice that turned an already unpleasant dish into a soggy mess. The overall effect was one of hastily microwaved frozen food in a peculiar combination of flavors.
On another occasion, we began with an order of green chile mac with bacon. Although the elbow macaroni was overcooked, and we wondered why a pasta dish came with a side of bread, we liked the zesty combination of jalapeño and smoky bacon, stirred into a smooth four-cheese sauce and topped with a crisp panko crust.
The Side-o-Chips served with housemade ketchup offered perfectly fried rounds of potato, crunchy-skinned and warmly soft-centered, which were wrecked by a dusting of Chinese five-spice powder. Flavors of cardamom and cinnamon overpowered the slices of firm white spuds. The ketchup was runny and acidic and tasted more like under-salted tomato paste than any condiment.
Hoping to banish the taste of cardamom and tomato paste, we asked about dessert. “We have a cinnamon-whisky cupcake,” we were told, “and it’s only served on Tuesdays.” This was a Wednesday, but because it appeared that the cupcake was being offered, we ordered one. Crammed with apple pie filling, it certainly did offer flavors of cinnamon and whiskey, and was topped with a French butter cream icing. It also was quite stale.
A trio of ice creams was also unfortunate. Clearly homemade, two of the three scoops — one flavored with Thai tea; the other with lychee nuts — were mostly bland and lousy with chunks of ice. The third was a smooth, creamy vanilla malt that nearly made us forget the cupcake we’d tasted (and, to be fair, our friendly waitress had tried to gently discourage us from ordering the Thai tea and lychee ice creams).
Bitter and Twisted’s drinks menu is treated reverentially. It gets updated with great fanfare, and much is made of the bar’s signature drinks. There’s Sucker Punch, made with Pisco, strawberry syrup, and plum bitters and finished off with a dash of lime juice. And the oddly refreshing Green Beast, which blends Vilya absinthe and is flavored with cucumber. Harder-to-find beer selections include Estrella Daura gluten-free and Samuel Smith organic cider. The wine list also contains some surprises: Klinker Brick Zinfandel and Tangent Albarino.
A pair of massive, framed bulletin boards at the end of the bar list daily drink and dining specials, as well as a review by the “Yelper of the Week.” Bitter and Twisted, perhaps in an attempt to live up to its name, last week posted a negative Yelp review from someone named Michael W. I can’t improve on Mr. W’s rundown of this high-end bar that offers sometimes middling food, so I’ll close with it, instead: “Was OK but nothing spectacular. Expected a lot more. Food was decent but nothing original. Same with drinks.”
Bitter and Twisted
1 West Jefferson Street
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Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Hurricane popcorn $7.50
Green chile mac with bacon $8
Pretzel burger $12.50
Housemade ice cream $5