Ever since word got out that La Condesa chef Rene Ortiz was launching a new restaurant concept based on Thai cuisine, I have been wondering how his highbrow Mexico city style would translate to an Asian cuisine.
When I think of Thai cooking, I tend to imagine little old ladies with betel nut stained lips laboriously churning out spice pastes and tending slow-simmered curries. And for most of America, a Thai meal is generally considered a cheap date. But chefs these days are tinkering with traditional cuisines, dressing them up, and then trotting them out like debutants at a ball. Frankly, Austin diners are loving it. Elizabeth Street’s rif on Vietnamese cuisine, Fresa’s take on pollo asado, or 24 Diner’s tricked out chicken and waffles are good cases in point.
Friday night I had the opportunity to see for myself just how successful upscale Thai can be when I attended the Friends and Family dinner at Sway.
To start with, the folks at Sway have made good business decisions. They’ve chosen a location along S.1st Street, which, with restaurants like Elizabeth Street and Lenoir, is rapidly becoming a major culinary strip. Second, they hired go-to restaurant architect Michael Hsu to design it. His design for Sway is reminiscent of Uchiko with big, bold splashes of color accented by unfinished wood paneling and farmhouse tables, all juxtaposed against hard surfaces in black and gray.
Then there’s the food itself, which is a deconstructed style of Thai cooking. All the pieces are there: the bold lime, the fermented fish sauce, the chiles and the basil. The flavors are sweet and sour, spicy and cool. But they are arrayed, like a fan of cards across the plate in studied, elemental compositions.
There are no back-of-the-house secrets at this restaurant because the kitchen is completely exposed to view from the dining room. From our ringside seats at the bar we watched Friday night’s kitchen drama unfold.
We gaped in suspense as a fry cook misthreaded a squeeze bottle of stock and that could have resulted in a messy kitchen disaster on the stove. We noticed that the line cook missed a spot when cleaning a plate of curry. We saw bumping and sweating, but overall we were impressed with the professionalism of this small and young kitchen battalion. The most popular dish Friday night was definitely the Jungle Curry with slow cooked Wagyu beef, in a green chile sauce, with baby corn and a dollop of coconut cream. We watched plate after plate of it march off the stove. But we were thrilled by a less glamorous chicken and peanut red curry dotted with a sprig of fresh green peppercorns that had all the makings of a potential addiction. We were too full to bother with dessert. We’ll save that for another visit.