At St. Pete's Twisted Cork, it's all about the fries

Loaded french fries is nothing new, but rarely is it anything more than a hefty pile of grease, potato and cheese, tasty and filling but far from exciting. Not here, however. The fun starts with the fries themselves, which are sturdy and crisp, able to maintain structural integrity after being drizzled with an elegant and velvety Gorgonzola cream sauce. Then bacon, of course, in hunks and chunks instead of bits, as well as a scattered handful of diced scallions. More blue cheese is tossed over the top, this time in crumbled, creamy masses to accent the sauce. The crowning glory -- and the only addition that's out of the ordinary -- are tiny, spicy, pickled diced peppers that add a burst of acidity and heat to shock your senses out of a potential fatty coma. They are fantastic.

But it takes a big dose of self-confidence (or self-loathing) to make a meal out of something like that, so you'll likely have to delve deeper than just the fries. The restaurant's "square" burgers are almost as spectacular, if a bit rectangular. The meat is loosely formed and decidedly fried, resulting in a crisp, salty crust and tender texture that matches well with the foccacia-style bun.

Twisted Cork's BLT comes with the usual fixin's, except for the clever substitution of crisp, cornmeal-crusted fried green tomatoes for the usual unripe reds. The shrimp po' boy, featuring more of that cornmeal batter, ain't bad either.

The restaurant's dinner options show more fine-dining influence, but less panache. "Low-country" pasta is tossed with teeny shrimp, cubed chicken, sliced andouille sausage and a silky cheddar sauce, but that chicken is oddly spongy and the sausage tastes more like bland kielbasa than the spiced treat I'd expect. Coca-Cola fried ribs are basic at best, with a simple sweet sauce that bears little flavor from "the pause that refreshes."

Big grilled pork chops are more the restaurant's speed, juicy, crusted and salty in the right amounts. Bacon adds a bit of smoke to the experience, with tart and sweet roasted tomatoes to cut through the big hunk of meat.

There's also a host of appetizers that range from deep-fried squares of mac and cheese that are a bit too bland to hold up to the flavor of fry oil to surprisingly well-stocked salads of fresh vegetables. Those salads are loaded with the little touches that make for memorable greens, like sliced peaches, candied nuts, and blobs of excellent cheese. Maybe a salad is the appropriate accompaniment for a plate of the decadent potatoes.

Then, of course, just to set you back on the proper path down fat lane, you can end with the restaurant's signature deep-fried Key lime pie. It starts with a base of tart custard in a tasty crust, which easily cuts through the thin blanket of sweet batter. Unlike most creations of this sort, the frying actually adds to the experience of an already exceptional pie.

Twisted Cork's primary appeal -- besides the fries, of course -- may be the unassuming location and the aura it lends to the place. No restaurant could pull off high-falutin' on this stretch of 19, attached to a motel that saw its heyday a couple decades back, so it doesn't even try. The service is familiar and personable, and the staff obviously goes out of its way to recognize regulars, especially at the bar on the side of the small dining room.

If the restaurant continues serving up food as well-thought out, ably accomplished and just downright interesting as it has for the first few months it's been open, that amenable atmosphere will be just the ticket to hook people into a schedule of regular visits. And if you have a few too many (fries, I mean) you can always roll back to the motel office, grab a room and sleep it off.

3405 34th St. N, St. Petersburg, 727-525-2675,

Photo by James Ostrand.

Don't get the wrong impression about Twisted Cork. Despite the name, and the corkscrew logo the restaurant uses on the menus and signage, the place isn't about wine. Take one look at the wee printed pyramids on the tables that list the beer and wine options, and that will become abundantly clear. Mondavi is the high-brow vino at Twisted Cork, and beer selections are limited to a handful of typical macro-brews and a short list of "imports" that includes domestic favorites Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada.

That selection fits the setting, for sure. Despite a menu that features updated sports bar and Southern-cooking comfort food, and flirts with fine-dining concoctions, Twisted Cork is in a decidedly downscale area on U.S. 19, tucked into the front of the aged, few-room Candlelight Motel. That's no commentary on the restaurant's food, however — especially the bar food — which is good enough to transcend the environment.

What Twisted Cork should be using as a logo is a bowl of french fries. That's the restaurant's real specialty.

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