Restaurant News & Reviews

Dining review: Nosh, imbibe at Black Twig Cider House and Gallo Pelon

The Rooster & The Pearl from Gallo Pelón Mezcaleria is made up of Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Cynar, Amontillado Sherry, Turbinado Sugar, Peychaud's Bitters and Grapefruit Oil.
The Rooster & The Pearl from Gallo Pelón Mezcaleria is made up of Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Cynar, Amontillado Sherry, Turbinado Sugar, Peychaud's Bitters and Grapefruit Oil. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Every metropolitan area worth its salt-rimmed glass can lay claim to at least a couple of first-rate cocktail bars, and probably more than a few wine bars and craft beer joints. But how many have a cider house? Or a mezcalería?

What is a mezcalería, anyway? Or a cider house, for that matter?

Glad you asked.

Black Twig Cider House

2812 Erwin Road, Durham

919-321-0203

blacktwigciderhouse.com

Psst! The password is txotx! It’s pronounced CHOCH (rhymes with coach) – and no, Black Twig Cider House is not a speakeasy. Anyone can walk in.

But if you say “txotx” to your server or bartender, you will be admitted to an exclusive club of sorts. The cost of membership is a very un-exclusive $2, which gets you a three-ounce pour of hard cider. Not just any cider, though. This is a Basque cider on tap, authentically poured (out of a spout called a txotx) from a height of five feet or so directly into the glass. This is how it’s done in the Spanish Basque country, where they’ve long known that the method aerates and imparts a light effervescence to wine or cider.

It’s safe to say, you’ll find the traditional txotx in precious few other places in this country. Black Twig joined that short list in March, when Mattie Beason and John Eisensmith opened the restaurant and bar, billing it as the first cider house in the Southeast.

And Beason should know. The owner of Mattie B’s Public House (and former owner of Six Plates Wine Bar, which he closed to make way for Black Twig) is a a certified cider expert and an instructor for the U.S. Association of Cider Makers. His knowledge and passion are reflected in Black Twig’s global selection of more than 80 ciders, 10 of them on tap or available by the glass. Friendly, helpful descriptions are aimed at sharing that passion and leading the uninitiated to the discovery that fermented apple juice can be just as nuanced and complex as beer or wine.

Who could resist trying, say, the Le Brun Cidre from Brittany after reading this description? “Melding the fresh orchard apple flavor that you expect from French cider with a tart and slightly funky character, this cider has a rich mouthfeel with a bit of texture. Don’t fear the funk – it doesn’t overpower the lush fruit.”

To encourage exploration, former Six Plates chef John Eisensmith has created a menu of shareable nibbles, salads and sandwiches, many featuring Firsthand sausages on Guglhupf buns. The Handsome Norman (like most sandwiches, named for a cider apple variety) drops a tasty cholesterol bomb of bratwurst, smoked pimento cheese, Picnic pulled pork, mustard and slaw into a sturdy hoagie bun. At the other end of the spectrum (and surprisingly satisfying for an avowed carnivore) is the Slack Ma Girdle: vegan potato-apple-sage sausage with pickled collard greens, spicy peppers and caramelized onions.

The obligatory burger makes its appearance here with cheddar and pickled red onions on a pretzel bun. Six Plates fans will be happy to know that Lamby Joes, that restaurant’s signature lamb-and-chorizo riff on sloppy Joes, are baaaack on the menu.

If you’re looking for something to share, Southern poutine – hand-cut Belgian fries topped with warm cheese sauce, diced tomatoes, scallions and crunchy, thick cut bacon – won’t let you down. Lighter nibbles include spicy-sweet cashews, rosemary-Old Bay popcorn, and Txotx Mix, Black Twig’s gluten-free answer to Chex Mix.

Black Twig Cider House is a casual place, with rustic communal tables setting a suitably relaxed mood for exploring the world of cider with some good, hearty food. On one brick wall, the word TXOTX painted in giant letters marks the spot where the special Basque barrel dispenses its dramatic pours. Even if you decide not to participate, you’re encouraged to say “txotx” when you hoist your glass of whatever beverage you choose. Turns out the word is also Basque for “cheers!”

Gallo Pelón

106-1/2 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh

919-835-0060

gallopelonnc.com

Admit it. When you think of mezcal, the thing that comes to mind is that bottle with the worm in it. The worm that you may or may not have eaten on a dare in college.

Gallo Pelón will open your eyes to a far more sophisticated view of tequila’s smoky cousin.

Located up a flight of stairs in a cozy, colorful space (with a rooftop patio) above the Mexican restaurant, Centro, the bar earns its mezcalería status by virtue of one of the largest mezcal selections in the country – currently 56, according to general manager Marshall Davis. These range from basic un-aged joven mezcals to barrel-aged and specialty distillations whose complex notes frequently draw comparisons to single malt Scotch – some with prices to match. If you think the worm was a challenge, try the Del Maguey Pechuga, which is distilled with the addition of wild mountain apples, plums, plantains, pineapple, rice and, suspended over the liquid during the third distillation, a raw chicken breast (that’s the Pechuga). A single one-ounce shot will set you back $25. And not to worry, only the essence of the chicken makes it into the glass.

For a more approachable – and affordable – introduction to mezcal, try the Freshman Mezcal Flight, a trio of joven mezcals from different Oaxacan distilleries for $23. Pursue further studies by sipping you way through six more flight offerings, working your way through the syllabus from Graduate ($42) all the way up to the Best of the Best ($68). But not all in one night, please. Most mezcals peg the alcohol needle at 100 to 110 proof. Hence the one-ounce pours.

Even if straight shots aren’t your thing, Gallo Pelón’s cocktail offerings alone make the bar a worthy destination. A classic Manhattan or Martinez if you like, but do yourself a favor and try at least one of the signature cocktails that Davis created to showcase mezcal’s surprisingly versatile nature. King Louie, for instance, a frothy riff on a tiki bar theme with mezcal, rum, banana nectar and a whole egg, garnished with fried plantain and a fresh orange slice.

Davis collaborates with Centro owner Angela Salamanca (who owns both establishments) to offer a menu of bar snacks designed primarily to pair with mezcal. Anyone familiar with the excellent downstairs restaurant won’t be surprised to know that pretty much everything served at the bar is made in house, from the corn tortillas that wrap Tacos de Gallo (a trio of fillings: crispy pork belly, fried shrimp and beer-braised beef) to the goat’s milk caramel ice cream that comes with a cinnamon-spiced bread pudding.

Chimi-Guac & Queso, a twin bill of dipper blends (chimichurri-guacamole and queso-chorizo) served with tortilla chips and fried pork skins, is understandably a best-seller. Elote fritters, crisp golden cubes with a creamy filling of Mexican corn, are addictive even without their spicy-sweet dip.

Pollo del Inferno, a newcomer to the menu when my wife and I visited recently, isn’t as fiery as the name implies, but the dish – fried chicken thighs and yuca nuggets, served with cotija-ranch cilantro and spicy pineapple-chile sauce for dipping — will still light up your tastebuds. A surprisingly dry ground chuck and chorizo patty in the burger was the only disappointment we encountered.

Overall, though, the food, drink and convivial setting charmed us into staying longer than we’d intended. The original plan was to have a couple of drinks and a light nibble at Gallo, then head downstairs for dinner at Centro. We paced ourselves pretty well on the booze front, but wound up noshing our way through six “bar snacks,” some of them clearly meant for sharing.

Oh well, guess we still have that visit to Centro to look forward to.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

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