At the relatively new and always packed Sway Modern Thai restaurant on South First, they offer a special family-style feast called Moo Sway. It is only available twice a day, and must be reserved in advance.
The meal consists of an off-the-menu whole slow roasted Thai-style pork shoulder and freshly shucked oysters, served with Bibb lettuce cups, jasmine rice, and assorted sauces. The main dish also comes with an assortment of other specialties from the regular menu to round out the meal.
I was among the lucky twelve media representatives invited to try the Moo Sway dinner at Sway. It is recommended that the group reserving the dinner be between eight and fifteen people, so twelve was a nice workable number.
The meal started out with a beautiful Betel leaf appetizer. Piled on the leaf were prawns, toasted coconut, toasted cashews, lime, Fresno chiles, and grapefruit. A mere bite, it nevertheless had the full range of Thai flavors and textures and was a wonderful starter. Next was Som Tam, the spicy green papaya salad that is showing up on menus all over South Austin. Made with red Thai chiles, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, green beans, and tamarind, it was a fiery chilled salad and one of the most memorable dishes of the evening. I don’t think I will ever go to Sway and fail to order it. A taste of Pad Thai was next, made with huge Blue Prawns, tofu, egg, toasted cashews, and bean sprouts. Sway’s version of the dish is one of the best in town; I especially liked that it is made with prawns and cashews rather than the more standard chicken and peanuts. Salt and Pepper Tofu was the next dish, and much to the surprise of all, it was the biggest hit at least at my end of the table. A simple dish consisting of fried squares of tofu floating on a glaze of sweet sambal and Thai chiles, it was the heartthrob of the whole evening for several of us. Finally, the pièce de résistance arrived: the pork shoulder, lettuce, rice, oysters, and sauces. All the previous courses were served family style, on plates which served three or four at a time. The pork shoulder, sauces, lettuce, rice, and oysters were presented on large serving platters set towards the middle of the table, making them extremely difficult for some of us to reach. One is supposed to take a leaf of lettuce, place a spoonful of rice in it, fill with pork and sauce, and then top with a raw oyster; it is eaten like a lettuce wrap. The servers realized that no one could reach the components of the dish, and subsequently the platters were carried around the table. Even with this help, the whole dish was very unwieldy and difficult to assemble and eat properly. I would have been thrilled to have it brought to me already assembled in the kitchen! Short of that, if it had been portioned for three people at a time like the other dishes, that would have at least made for easier assembly. The sauces especially were delicious, but lacking the ability to reach them and not wanting to repeatedly squash other diners in the attempt, we missed out. This course fell rather flat with guests at our end of the table.
In fact, this seems like a good time to bring up the whole communal-seating trend that restaurants have been trying out lately. I rather like sitting at sushi bars and sometimes having light conversation with strangers, sort of making friends; I understand the concept of enhanced conviviality promised by communal seating. I also am sympathetic to the idea that, in a small space, restaurateurs might need to maximize the number of butts in chairs to stay in business. I get it.
Nevertheless, I don’t think the communal seating works out very well in real life. Six two-tops would have easily fit in the amount of space taken up by the huge square table at Sway. Seating capacity was not enhanced. Nor was conviviality; the noise level in the dining room was a deafening roar, no doubt from people trying to yell across their huge tables in an effort to be heard even by a seatmate. I found myself yelling into the ear of the lady right next to me! Conversation was literally impossible. Community was not achieved by staring helplessly at people four feet away that it was impossible to talk to. In short, I hope the whole communal seating fad dies a rapid death. I gave it a chance, but it gets the thumbs-down from me. Moving on:
The very last dish was another crowd-pleaser, the Green Beans with Garlic and Chile. Although simple like the tofu, the green beans also displayed the perfection an exquisitely executed dish made from stellar ingredients can have.
Dessert was Sway’s incredible banana split, made with house-made caramel and chocolate ice cream, a black sesame brownie, candied cashews, and whipped cream. The ice creams at Sway are astounding, and this is the best banana split you will ever taste.
I would also especially like to mention that Sway has gotten into the kombucha game, with their very own flavor: SWAY Home Brew, made with ginger and lemongrass. I absolutely loved it, and I am not even a big fan of kombucha. It is being bottled by the company Kosmic Kombucha, and it is really, really good. I would happily pay hard cash money for it in any retail establishment.
In spite of all the awkwardness, I would have to say the Moo Sway meal is a extremely good deal, and a very impressive way to celebrate with a crowd. If I were invited to a birthday party, for instance, and had this meal, I would remember the food for the rest of my life, with great fondness.
SWAY Modern Thai Restaurant
1417 S. First, 512/326-1999
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