"Get the son-in-law."
"You have to try the son-in-law."
I often hear raves about the newest, hottest restaurant before I get to try it myself, as I usually give places time to round into form. But rarely has the excitement been articulated as specifically – in the form of one dish – as it was with Sway, the Thai restaurant helmed by La Condesa chef Rene Ortiz that opened last December.
Though the origin of the name is debatable, son-in-law generally refers to a dish with a soft-boiled egg that has been lightly breaded and then fried, the yolk heightened to a honey-like consistency. The golden orb is one of the main attractions of the son-in-law ($16) at Sway.
It also features pork shoulder, which on my first visit was overcooked to a tired state resembling jerky. But I ordered the same dish on a follow-up visit, because … "TRY THE SON-IN-LAW" kept ringing in my head. The second time, I got it.
And not just because the pork stood proud before falling all over itself in a pile of velvety shards. It was that sauce. The one that helped braise the pork to utter relaxation. Soy sauces and palm sugar laced with chili vinegar enchants with that irresistible alchemy of salt, sugar and fat (from the pork). It’s well known that the unholy trinity sings a siren song that tempts most palates, but finding the balance is the tricky part. And it’s part of what Sway does so well: concealing complexity beneath robust flavors.
The Michael Hsu-designed space and convivial ambiance reflect that culinary idea. Large mahogany community tables account for most of the seating, with latticed birdcage-top light fixtures suspended above providing warm light. Crowded on each of my several visits, the restaurant hums with indistinguishable energized chatter. Listen closely and you’ll catch conversations that skip from spicy to salty, sweet to sour. But taken as a whole, the vibe is inviting and comforting, the discordant groups finding a resounding harmony.
Occasionally the pitch falters – the group at the end of the table gets obnoxiously loud, a larb moo Thai pork chili special appetizer ($11) glistens with too much oil and saps with its abundance of salt; you’re sidled with a bickering couple on one side and a flirtatious one on the other, as an appetizer of chicken wings ($9) tries to hide an acrid carbon aftertaste behind a treacly glaze of caramelized tamarind. But those missteps tend to be the exceptions at Sway.
General Chong’s quail stir fry ($16) delivers on the thin promise of take-out Chinese with a viscous nahm prik pao sauce full of depth from toasted chilies, garlic, fish sauce, palm sugar and tamarind. The dish, named after chef de cuisine Alexis Chong, winks with sweetness and tang over the fibrous snap of Chinese broccoli and bamboo shoots. The kitchen sends out dishes as they’re ready, so you need to pace yourself, but that means you get rosy duck cooked to a tender pliancy that repeated itself with every protein I had at Sway with the exception of that one ornery son-in-law.
Medallions of grilled hanger steak glowed with a purple-hearted iron-like strength in the Tiger Cry ($17), a dish heated by fresno chiles and nahm prik pao and refreshed by Thai basil, the flavors moving in synchronicity.
Things build to a culinary crescendo with the curry dishes, such as a peanut curry ($17) with a confit chicken leg that almost dissolved in a restorative dish deep with chicken flavor. I could see chicken gelatin gliding across the surface of the sauce spiked with a pearled strip of green peppercorns and infused with granules of crushed peanuts. Jungle curry ($19) is an adventure in exploration, roast-like hunks of tri-tip beef shoulder stoic amidst the swinging heat, floral cool, earthy undertones and sweet embrace of a sauce packed with red chilies, holy basil, green Thai eggplant and coconut cream.
But not everything is a puzzle that calls for deconstruction. Simplicity also shines at Sway. Crispy shallots and a sweet and mildly spicy green nahm jim (a chili-based sauce) elevate immaculate teardrops of raw St. Simon oysters ($18/half dozen) with crunch and kick. Layers of freshness tangle in a tumble of firm green papaya salad ($9) piqued with tartness and acid from cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. The salad bursts with as much color as the vibrant lotus flower sign at the front of the South First Street restaurant, all the ingredients on proud display. And the massive, spiraling, meaty salt-and-pepper blue prawns, spotted like a puffer fish with fermented black bean and chili oil, were a testament to simple elegance. No, salt-and-pepper shrimp is not a traditional Thai dish, but matters of provenance are of little importance when enjoying such an exceptional dish.
The $19 price tag on those shrimp may give pause to some folks, along with other entrees priced 50 percent higher than the more familiar Thai food of strip malls. And it’s true that a big lunch or dinner can go from $20 a person to $40 a person without much effort. But at Sway you’re paying for technique, incredibly fresh ingredients and a careful attention to the subtle layering of flavors. Ortiz learned about this complex building-block approach to Thai cuisine while working in kitchens in Australia. That country helped reinvigorate and re-introduce Thai cuisine to the rest of the world. Aussie chef David Thompson put his spin on classics and gained the most worldwide attention when his Nahm in London became the first Thai restaurant to earn a much-coveted Michelin star. Ortiz’s indoctrination into that world of cooking gives Sway a unique pedigree in Austin.
Sway doesn’t have a liquor license but does offer a wide variety of Asian beers, more than a dozen sakes and about two dozen wines, half of which are available by the glass. A crisp bottle of Mount Nelson Sauvignon Blanc ($44), full of fruit and minerality, was agile enough to complement most of the menu. What sets Sway apart on the beverage spectrum is the offering of fermented kombucha and drinking vinegars ($4) from Portland’s Pok Pok. Sway mixes a couple of ounces of flavored vinegar — honey, tamarind, pomegranate or apple — with Topo Chico. If the refreshing drink strikes you as too tart, just try to keep in mind the alleged medicinal factors.
Another thing setting Sway apart is executive pastry chef Laura Sawicki. Winner of last year’s Best New Pastry Chef from Food & Wine Magazine, the brilliant bespectacled chef has few peers in Austin. Having proven her excellence at La Condesa, Sawicki seems to be equally comfortable with Thai flavors as she is with Mexican flavors. As with the savory dishes, desserts blend ascendant flavors with more firmly rooted ones. The pleasant pucker of yuzu-cured cake ringed by rhubarb and macerated cherries finds aromatic balance with a tarragon gelato that at first confuses then delights. The lady has a way with ice cream, evidenced by the playful banana split dessert that features a trio of excellent ice creams — condensed milk, cashew caramel swirl and a double-taking inducing five-spice chocolate — surrounded by fudge-like black sesame brownie bites, coconut milk jam and saucy cherries.
It’s the kind of whimsical, nostalgia-fueled dish that makes you want to run and tell your friends about it.