Driving home up Rainier Avenue a month ago, I spotted a nondescript, mysterious bit of graffiti: "1 + 1 = 3." I have no idea what this spray-painted equation refers to, but I love it. I've since spotted the same tag on a building at 12th Avenue and Boren Avenue, as well as a variation, "1 + 3 = 5," at 14th Avenue and Howell Street. It haunts me.
I have not seen this graffiti equation anywhere in Phinney Ridge, home of Oliver's Twist, a terrific lounge offering inventive house cocktails and lovely small plates, but I'm almost tempted to scrawl it on the wall of the ladies' restroom (which is the easily one of the best restrooms in town—the vintage-style paper-towel dispenser doubles as a mirror, the floor is red faux crocodile skin, and there's box of feminine products on the sink). It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes Oliver's Twist so great—food, drinks, atmosphere, and service are all top-notch yet decidedly low-key. Like Capitol Hill's Licorous or Ballard's Sambar, Oliver's Twist offers stellar snacks best shared and paired with cocktails. Owners Dan Braun and Sarah Hughes-Giles have imbued all the elements of their restaurant with authenticity and personality; Oliver's Twist possesses a charm that is much more than the sum of its parts.
The fantastic, loud orange-and-brown-striped awning outside—warm, bold, distinct—is an indication of what awaits inside. The bookshelf above the bar holds a charming array of titles that hints at what's to come: The Liquid Kitchen, The Modern Drunkard, Food Lover's Companion, How to Win Friends & Influence People, and the punned-upon Dickens novel. My friend and I arrived at the tail end of happy hour, just before 6:30 p.m., and the bartender generously informed us that we should order quickly to take advantage of the $2 off all food and house cocktails.
To miss the cocktails—all $8 and most made with distinct, house-infused syrups—would be a shame. My friend had the Miss Nancy, a delicious, pink, almost savory combination of gin, rhubarb-tarragon syrup, blood-orange bitters, and bubbly—served with a long sprig of tarragon. I was jealous of it, though I was doing quite well with my Toby Crackit, a mix of gin, limoncello, vermouth, and ginger ale. Other options include the intriguing Artful Dodger, made with an artichoke liqueur called Cynar, and the Mr. Sowerberry, which features elderflower syrup and an elderflower sugarcoated rim.
The food at Oliver's Twist, all made in a kitchen that, from what I can tell, consists of just two butane burners, a tiny oven, and a popcorn machine, is confident and intensely flavorful. That the ingredients are high quality (Trampetti olive oil, Salumi salami, local artisan cheese) and the prices are all $10 or less makes the menu even more of a triumph. Garlic truffled popcorn ($4), appropriately described by the bartender as "edible crack" is an explosion of buttery, dirty, salty goodness on the tongue—it's flavored with both truffle oil AND truffle salt that's offset nicely by a little flat-leaf parsley.
The anchovy, caramelized onion, and Reggiano pizette ($8) also packs an intense flavor punch, though the thick layer of onion made it a bit too sweet for my liking. A plate of Mt. Townsend Camembert, quince paste, and bacon compote ($10) is, again, an intense (notice a theme here?) but expertly assembled combination of textures and taste. The tomato cappuccino (not precious, thankfully—just a thick, tangy soup topped with a little foam) and mini grilled-cheese sandwich made with Port Madison cheddar ($8) is a fresh take on a classic combination.
If I have one complaint about the food, it's that it's almost too much. It's a good thing these are small plates, because the concentration of such flavors can get a little overwhelming. My favorite dish—gorgeous, silky lacinato kale with crunchy garlic, lemon, and chili flakes ($5)—might have made the strongest impression because it was comparatively light and clean.
I took a bag of the garlic truffled popcorn home and ate it in bed the next morning. As I savored it, I had just one thought: I wish Oliver's Twist was in my neighborhood.