Downtown restaurant serves up fancifully delicious plates
Reviewed by Claudia Alarcón, Fri., Aug. 17, 2012
Swift's Attic315 Congress #200; 482-8842
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11am-2pm; dinner: Mon.-Wed., 5-10pm; Thu.-Sat., 5-11pm
Having been around Austin's restaurant scene for so long, I've gotten to know a few names worth following. So I expected nothing short of excellence from the team behind Swift's Attic, whom I recently compared to the Justice League in these pages. When you aim for such quality as a restaurateur, you are poised to have a winner, and co-owners C.K. Chin and Stuart Thomajan have a champion. I love the impressive transformation of the venerable but tired Kyoto into an elegant shabby-chic space, with exquisite attention to detail by veteran interior designer Leslie Fossler, who was designing restaurants way before anyone paid attention to that. Her imaginative up-cycling of antique door knobs and glass transformer caps into cool furnishings honor the building's history, which dates back to 1905 as home to the Swift Premium Food Co. The space is low lit but not dark, with original wood and exposed brick juxtaposed with modern touches such as lime green tables. And the bathrooms – at least the ladies' – are over-the-top beautiful.
Both co-owners are hands-on managers, walking constantly through the restaurant making sure every detail and every table is taken care of. Chin, who functions as general manager, is a young but experienced host who ran a tight ship at Paggi House. His fun personality and insistence on quality-driven, customer-centered service foster a laid-back, yet professional floor staff that is knowledgeable and eager to please. Chin is also behind the silly names of the bar's cocktails ($10). Favorites are the Reunited, combining peaches and herbed simple syrup (get it?) with OG XO brandy, Cointreau, peach bitters, and lemon juice. The potent but refreshing Prince Edward's Ass blends Forty Creek Barrel Select, Maine Root Ginger Brew, and lime. In the lighter Champampaloma, Ty Ku Citrus Liqueur, freshly squeezed grapefruit, and grapefruit zest mingle with Champagne. The excellent wine list is a collaboration between Chin and Sam Hovland of East End Wines. Beers on tap are mostly local, a theme that resonates into the kitchen.
Executive Chef Mat Clouser (Rabbit + Hat supper club, Uchi, Kenichi, Jeffrey's) and sous chef Zack Northcutt (Haddingtons, Mulberry) are turning out impressive small plates loaded with umami flavors, with a variety of international influences and an emphasis on housemade everything. On multiple visits we've sampled bar snacks ($5) like seasonal pickles in a variety of styles. The tempura battered "frickles" of green beans and okra, piping hot and crunchy, are amongst the best fried veggies I've had. A trendy kimchi tasting includes the traditional napa cabbage but also preparations with daikon, yellow squash, and celery. From the plates menu we've been wowed by the Maine diver scallop tiradito ($14) artfully served over cucumber sorbet and garnished with a good dose of spicy aji amarillo puree. The crispy twice-cooked duck wings ($10), coated with a savory black bean glaze and a soy-based spicy dipping sauce scented with lime leaf, are unforgettable. Seasonal dishes of grilled peaches with thyme and crema fresca ($5) and sourdough panzanella with heirloom tomatoes, arugula, and pomegranate vinaigrette ($12) pay homage to the Texas summer.
The dexterity and food knowledge of the chefs are apparent in the grilled baby octopi ($15), the most tender preparation ever of these favorite critters, garnished with arugula, fennel, and watermelon rind pickles, plus a dried chile paste with a hint of dried shrimp. Same for the squid "fries" ($12), incredibly tender, crispy fried strips served with herb salad, roasted garlic aioli, and a grilled lemon half. The new Broken Arrow Ranch antelope steak frites ($20) is a thing of beauty, perfectly cooked and juicy, topped with chimichurri. The fries on this plate are a serious contender for best in Austin.
The lunch menu is smaller, featuring items not available at dinner, like the ridiculously rich Bowling Alley Burger ($13). It's a tad pricy for the size, but worth it: chunky, house-ground beef, melted fontina, griddled onion, and a "fancy-ass special sauce" encased in a sesame seed bun with a Swift's pickle spear and those addictive fries on the side. As recommended, we made it "mo' betta" with a sunny-side up farm egg and a grilled heirloom tomato, and needed a fork and knife to eat the whole gooey mess. On the lighter side was the Idaho rainbow trout ($14), crispy seared on the skin, then delicately placed in a bowl of leek and radish broth, dotted with sun-dried tomato tapenade. Desserts from Callie Speer (Jeffrey's, Mars, parkside) prove that husband Philip isn't the only talented pastry chef in their household. Popcorn & a Movie ($7) offers salted, buttered popcorn gelato, mini candy bars and Cracker Jacks, and a root beer gel. A new one they call the S'maybe, inspired by s'mores but way better, pairs caramelized white chocolate mousse with hazelnut-graham gelato and grapefruit curd, garnished with cardamom-scented "Callie-mallows." Charred on the outside with a gooey inside, they blew away this marshmallow hater. I now sleep peacefully, knowing that Austin's culinary future is in the hands of the Super Friends.