"Definitely the panna cotta," I proclaimed as I tossed back the last of a custardy dessert topped with crunchy, caramelized amaranth seeds, red grapes, sugared basil, and lychee sorbet ($9). It was cool and creamy, offsetting the fire of the meal we had just eaten.
"No way," my husband argued, "the miso white chocolate semifreddo was far superior." Like the panna cotta, it too was an artful arrangement of creamy and crunchy, set atop a thick streak of sesame syrup that was almost chocolaty, the whole thing ringed by dollops of tangy mango sorbet ($9).
We were arguing over the desserts at Sway, South First's latest buzz eatery, which is causing a stir for its iconoclastic take on fine dining. Sway's Thai-based menu offers the ideal platform to showcase the type of inventiveness that is helping redefine the way we think not just about dessert, but about dining in general.
It used to be that fine dining in America meant a meal showcasing French or Italian cuisine, plated up on stuffy white linen tablecloths. However, over the past two decades the focus has shifted, allowing savvy restaurateurs to emphasize the cultural and sensory experience of the meal. These days, American fine dining is less about status and refinement than it is about entertainment and adventure. Just about any culinary tradition is up for grabs.
Into this brave new world of food walk Rene Ortiz and Pastry Chef Laura Sawicki, embracing the concept that a meal is a journey. Sway is a vehicle that transports you.
Designed by wunderkind architect Michael Hsu, whose notable projects include Uchi, Uchiko, La Condesa, Fino, and Olivia, Sway bears Hsu's unmistakable imprint. Sway's intensely private, screened exterior belies a lively interior space centered on contrasting materials and a bold color palette. Warm wood meets bright yellow terracotta tiles accented with muted shades of gray and black. Meanwhile, the brightness of the open kitchen juxtaposes sharply with the dimly lit dining room where communal tables promise conviviality over privacy. The aristocratic, white tablecloth paradigm is nowhere in evidence.
My first visit to Sway was during their Friends and Family dinner in December. My spouse and I had ringside seats at the bar in front of the kitchen, where we watched plate after plate of glistening salt-and-pepper shrimp, curries, and colorful salads make their way onto the house floor. Though the restaurant was full and the staff was still finding its rhythm, I was impressed by how smoothly the kitchen and waitstaff managed the flow of orders. Since then, I've heard mixed reviews about service, quality, and long waits. However, my experience has remained positive.
You won't find prepackaged curry pastes or chile oils here. The kitchen prepares most of these from scratch, and it shows. Start the meal with the cleansing Prawn Miange ($10), which looks almost too pretty to consume. Cold shrimp, toasted coconut, chiles, and cashews are tossed in citrusy sauce and served over betel nut leaves. Move on to the Peanut Curry ($17), which features succulent chicken confit and a poached egg. Of all the dishes I've eaten at Sway, this simple curry is my favorite.
On the other hand, I get why the Jungle Curry ($19) is Sway's most popular dish. Tender beef anchors a swirl of red chiles, lemongrass, and ginger. It's all crowned with a dollop of coconut cream and a sprig of fresh green peppercorns that's as fragrant as honeysuckle. It is definitely not for pansy tastebuds. On the tamer side, the Chinese-inspired Son in Law ($16) showcases braised pork shoulder in a molasses-sweetened thick soy sauce accompanied by a poached egg and crunchy chile oil. It is also delicious, but almost too rich for my palate. In the future, I'd pair it with the sweet and sour Som Tam (cold green papaya salad, $9). There are so many fine dishes at Sway, it's hard to choose just one or two.
Sure, the food is pricier than at a typical Thai or Southeast Asian restaurant, but let's face it: Sway is not selling an authentic cuisine prepared by little old grandmas. Grab your bullwhip and hat; this is the new terrain of fine dining in America.
Copyright © 2016 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.