At Swift's Attic, culinary artistry flies unfettered
Music wafts down into the stairwell as you ascend to Swift's Attic on Congress Avenue. Ornate carpeted stairs, bare brick walls and exposed dangling filament bulbs combine for an urbane-but-rustic vibe in the reimagined space above the Elephant Room.
Swift's owners have stripped away the drabbery of the former home of nondescript sushi restaurant Kyoto, revealing century-old artwork on the building's walls. Honeyed late-afternoon sunlight filters in from the windows at the front of the building, the diffused light spreading across the bar and cocktail area. The bar program offers a roster of $10 specialty cocktails that includes a bittersweet Negroni and a refreshing cocktail named after Prince Edward that's composed of Canadian whiskey and Maine Root Ginger Brew.
The back half of the restaurant is subtly divided into three areas: individual tables to one side, tall vibrant kelly-green communal tables in the middle and leather-bound banquets lining the northern wall. Antique iron pulleys serve as light fixtures and harken to the building's early 20th-century roots as a meatpacking warehouse. A wrought-iron birdcage that echoes the restaurant's logo hangs above the dining room's centerpiece circular table, which is backed by a handsome Baltic blue wall covered in a Damask print for a shabby-chic effect.
The restaurant's name refers to the original tenant of the building, but the logo and moniker also reference the swift bird, and one can envision the space as a nest of sorts, the owners having grabbed bits of culinary and decorative pieces, such as a curtain made of doorknobs, to build the restaurant's home.
At dinner the packed dining room hums with the sound of soul music mingling with the rumbling din of indistinguishable chatter from the guests. Co-owner C.K. Chin patrols the dining room floor, greeting familiar faces from his time at Paggi House and Imperia, navigating newcomers through Swift's many menus (beer, wine, cocktails and food all get their own pages) and assisting servers.
Chin and his partner, Stuart Thomajan (Paggi House), have brought in executive chef Mat Clouser and sous chef Zack Northcutt to direct the menu composed largely of shareable small plates. I've found that two small plates and a shared appetizer have delivered enough food to sate me on each dinner visit.
The dishes represent a mind-meld of Clouser and Northcutt. The Asian influences from Clouser's time at Uchi and Kenichi can be seen in dishes such as a seared albacore tataki ($14) and a raw diver scallop tiradito ($14), while former Mulberry and Haddington's chef Northcutt's love of duck and pork fats gets top-billing on a charcuterie plate ($10) of dense chicken liver mousse, duck-bourbon gelée and a heavenly whipped rabbit terrine, fluffed by its frenzied wedding with braised pork belly.
The result is a menu that spans culinary genres and makes Swift's hard to categorize. Less precise and delicate than Barleyswine, not as heavy as Haddington's and way more adventurous than ordinary bar food, Swift's offerings are an eclectic hodgepodge one would associate with an attic discovery.
Our friendly but respectful waitress one night incorrectly told us to expect crispy fish with our sarde in soar ($6) appetizer special. Although the sardine had been fried, it spent the next 24 hours cooling its jets in a white wine bath. Seasoned with sugar, vinegar, red currants and golden raisins, the dish of oily fish balanced sweet with tart, and we happily forgave the crispiness misdirect.
On another evening a nightly special of tempura fried squash blossoms ($12) came stuffed with the mild heat of roasted peppers and the salve of housemade ricotta. The lightly crunchy blossoms were served on a thick and creamy polenta with earthy mushrooms and a pistou that left an herbal aftertaste.
Those buff-colored delicacies had more plate appeal than a dish of splayed sunchoke and roasted fennel ($14). While the fennel and firm sunflower root, blanched in white wine and looking like a center cut from a baby tree trunk, carried bright notes of Riesling vinegar on their sturdy backs, the sunny-side-up egg hiding underneath could have had a more pliant center.
Juicy pork cheeks ($11) arrived in a cute ceramic pot. The meat, carrying notes of Hoisin sauce, received the collaborative pleasures of a deep sweetness of fig preserve and tangy whole-grain mustard.
More pork pleasures came in the form of Vietnamese-inspired banh minis ($14). Crisp toast points carried creamy slabs of foie gras (way better than mayonnaise) and fat-and-crisp-balanced pork belly, with small pieces of jalapeno and carrot bringing the traditional heat and vegetal cool.
Venison kabobs ($18) displayed the kitchen's skill on the grill. The meat, its fenugreek whispering notes from India, was fork-tender and succulent, though for the price, I would have liked two skewers instead of one, and the red curry yogurt carried a bit of grit.
One of the dinner highlights was a flaky Idaho rainbow trout ($14) with crisp silvery skin served in a deep, comforting broth of white wine and butter. If the delicately fried chicken tsukune meatballs ($10) represented the bar side of the menu spectrum, the a la plancha trout, served with thin slices of refreshing leeks and dotted by a sundried tomato tapenade, spoke to the humble fine dining elements found in Swift's Attic.
The restaurant serves lunch to a smaller and tamer crowd that seems to vary in size on a daily basis. The large-grind burger ($13), topped with the salty tang of melted fontina and sweetness of caramelized onions, earned a spot on my top-10 Austin burgers list. And the vegetable Italian hero, crammed with meaty Calabrian peppers and a smoky, grilled radicchio that almost tasted like pastrami, made my list of best vegetarian sandwiches in town. The chicken "CLT," featuring chicken "bacon," got points for inventiveness, but the salty and greasy cracklins left me and my lunch guest feeling dehydrated.
Dessert offerings from pastry chef Callie Speer (formerly of Parkside) stay the same from lunch into dinner, and while the soft beauty of a peach sorbet served atop squares of tres leches cake ($7) could warm any heart, the more experimental popcorn and a movie ($7) is tough to resist. Salty, buttered popcorn gelato served with root beer gelée and homemade candy bars (think Snickers mating with Twix) confuse and thrill like a whirlwind first weekend of dating a new love.
In the daytime, the gentle Swift's feels more like an atrium than an attic, light emptying in from the skylight that frames the Frost Tower across the street. But when night arrives, the place comes alive. With a menu featuring dishes that are creative and inspired but not too challenging, Swift's attracts a variety of guests, bringing in the professed foodies, the Warehouse District bar-hoppers, starry-eyed daters and older couples and tourists.
Female servers in hot pants and black T-shirt-clad male servers bustling about the rambunctious but not obnoxious scene make Swift's at its busiest feel like your eccentric friend's catered loft party. With thoughtful, flavorful dishes served in a space that always teems with possibility, even while at rest, maybe Swift's has helped form a new niche in the Austin dining scene, the gastroclub.
Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986. Twitter: @Odam.