Searching for good Thai in Austin? You can find it, particularly in certain pockets of town. But finding it in the downtown area is a little more difficult. That is, until this weekend when Sway — perhaps the most anticipated restaurant to hit Austin this year — officially opens its doors to the public on Sunday at South First and Elizabeth Street.
It’s the second Austin launch from progressive restaurateur Jesse Herman of La Condesa. And with the help of his solid team of chefs (Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki), beverage director (Nate Wales), business partner (Delfo Trombetta), architect (Michael Hsu), and an army of kitchen, management and service staff, Sway is already being touted as the next big thing to raise Austin’s culinary bar yet another notch.
Here’s what I can say about Sway: It’s an undeniably chic and sexy place. It’s designed for amazing efficiency and service. And the food — based on pre-opening run-throughs — is breathtaking.
This past week the restaurant hosted a series of evenings for family, friends and media to get it up and running at full speed before opening to the public.
Although it’s too soon to say how that next chapter will be, here’s what I can say about Sway: It’s an undeniably chic and sexy place. It’s designed for amazing efficiency and service. And the food — based on pre-opening run-throughs — is breathtaking. (And that’s not just because of the liberties Ortiz takes with his spicy applications to his dishes.)
You’ll find all the bells and whistles in clever design elements throughout the main dining room of this place, from massive woven iron light fixtures to a glass wall off the bar that raises up to the outdoor patio and a fully exposed kitchen for the public to see. You’ll even find that the majority of the restaurant seating is around large, 16-top square tables — communal tables. Which means, unless you opt for an available spot along the kitchen bar or one of the smaller bar stool areas along the far walls, you’ll be eating with just about any Tom, Dick or Harry in town.
(Before you start to protest, remember that it’s not exactly a new idea. Aside from forward-thinking restaurants such as Barley Swine leading the communal table charge, it’s also the primary style of seating of just about any famed barbecue joint you go to in Central Texas. You know, the ones where you have to throw a leg over at a line of wooden picnic tables?)
Once you get a spot at a table, you have options from a concise menu offering a handful of appetizers and a couple of options from each of the stir fry, curry, wok noodle and grilled preparations.
""T"The goal is really simple. We want to make people feel better when they walk out than they do when they walk in. " - Jesse Herman
The high table between the bar and the main dining room is for Moo Sway, a twice-a-night, large format, family style meal offering things like a whole roasted pork shoulder with sides. All regular menu items are under $20 (except an occasional market price item), and all orders are served family style.
You can also opt for the $35 or $45 smaller portioned tasting menus, which give a healthy sampling of just about every flavor of the menu. (Wine pairing optional.)
To drink, there’s wine, sake and beer as well as a selection of house-made sodas, Vietnamese coffees and teas and a private-label Sway kombucha from Austin’s own Kosmic Kombucha.
And if you’re wondering why Thai? Why Austin? Why now? It’s probably best to let Jesse Herman explain.
CultureMap: What made you want to do a Thai restaurant in Austin?
Jesse Herman: I actually did a business plan for this restaurant five years ago in New York. Thai is familiar to me because I’d lived in Sydney where I was exposed to this whole spectrum of higher end to lower end Thai food. There’s a style of Thai food in Australia which is inspired by a whole generation of chefs in Australia who took a whole new approach to Thai food and made it their own with their techniques and local ingredients.
One night, I was at a dinner with my business partners and Rene was cooking this dinner and he made this dish that was tamarind glazed crispy pork hock, which is a very famous David Thompson dish, who’s maybe one of the most famous Thai chefs in the world. And it turns out Rene used to work in Sydney with all these guys. And so we took a while on creating this project.
CM: So the menu is inspired by this Australian version of Thai food more or less?
JH: Rene and Laura are ultimately the ones developing the menus. Nate, Delfo and I work very closely with them to expand ideas. Because of that, we also have a lot of Chinese, Indonesian, Malay and other influences on the food, in a similar way that La Condesa has with regional influences throughout Mexico.
CM: Talk about how important the relationship is between Rene and Laura.
JH: They’ve known each other since before La Condesa. They have this amazingly odd collaborative and co-dependent relationship where she is involved in his creative process more than anybody else and he is involved in hers. She came over to Sway not knowing anything about Thai food. It’s not just her pulling recipes out of cookbooks and she’s relied on Rene to guide her. And they’re creating things that I’ve never seen before. It’s really a key to what we’re about.
CM: You have such a diverse background as a restaurateur. You’re from Boston, you’ve lived internationally and in New York. You’re not a chef, but you’re clearly integrally involved with the food.
JH: I’ve always been obsessed with architecture, design, food, wine, spirits and graphic design, but I didn’t want to be just one of those things. I wanted to be something that embodies all of these disciplines that I’m interested in. That’s the reason I’m a restaurateur. I try to align the visions of all the people working on the project. I know what I want the finished product to look like. So I have to direct all of this creative energy of all of these extremely creative people to focus in on that goal.
CM: So how close is Sway to your original vision?
CM: You’ve talked about all of these interests that have been near and dear to you, but you could have combined all of these privately and just enjoyed them from your own home. Instead, you’ve intentionally created these things to involve the public.
JH: People are a very important part of it as well. Essentially what we’re doing in a restaurant is creating theater. When you walk in, it should be a transformative experience. You’re in this atmosphere that’s a total sensory experience. You need to feel what it smells like, tastes like, looks like and feels like. At a restaurant, you’re sharing a meal, which is one of the oldest forms of social contact that we have.
The goal is really simple. We want to make people feel better when they walk out than they do when they walk in.