Restaurant in Review
The much anticipated Swift’s Attic hit the ground running last month, opening its doors with an immediate fan following for the power house team of executive chef Mat Clouser, sous chef Zack Northcutt and pastry chef Callie Speer.
For Clouser, Swift’s has been a work in progress, one undertaken alongside owners Stuart Thomajon and CK Chin (Paggi House) since 2010. Having worked the corporate side of kitchens with Kenichi for a few years, he was had been looking for a more hands-on gig that would give him more opportunity to explore his creative side.
“It was a good job, but I couldn’t cook the way I wanted to and I knew it wasn’t the kind of thing I would be happy doing long term,” says Clouser, whose extensive career has included such restaurants as Jeffrey's, Vespaio and Uchi. “When the opportunity came along to create something from scratch with the guys from Paggi, I knew it was the right thing.”
As Swift’s Attic progressed — property acquired, renovations, menu development and team building — Clouser honed in on another local chef, Zack Northcutt, to join him as his sous chef. Northcutt’s solid background in such notable restaurants as Jean Georges “Bank,” Mulberry and Haddington’s brought Clouser a great partner for his new kitchen; someone he could reliably bounce ideas off of and trust he could get sound feedback in return.
True to its name, Swift’s Attic is quite simply an eclectic collection of oddities, both on the menu and throughout the overall design of the restaurant.
“I had been working on some other projects, but it was just such a great group of people that I really wanted to make it work,” says Northcutt. “We’ve known each other for a long time and have always wanted to work together.”
By the time Northcutt came on board, Clouser had already hammered out an identity for the restaurant. True to its name, Swift’s Attic is quite simply an eclectic collection of oddities, both on the menu and throughout the overall design of the restaurant.
“I wanted to put things on the menu that would make me happy to cook,” says Clouser, who has worked with everything from French, Creole and Italian cuisines to Southern and Japanese in his career. “The kinds of things chefs want to go out to eat; and the kinds of food that represent the different styles I’ve worked with. This is really what we’re calling a ‘FUBU’ kitchen — for us, by us.”
The menu is exactly that. As Northcutt describes it, it’s an assortment of different “shiny things” and interesting ingredients crafted together in creative dishes intended to pique the senses. “Pique” is the operative word, as it’s easy for your appetite to become confused when reading through the menu. Some items flow rather well together, while others are a bit tangental, an intentional design by both chefs.
“You can come in here and have a handful of light snack-type dishes, or go for a heavier meal and still get to taste a number of different things,” says Northcutt. “And all of the individual dishes are clean and straight forward.”
The design is a direct reflection of the menu with a decidedly masculine feel and a sort of gothic mad-scientist assortment of light fixtures, paintings, tables, chairs and wall detail. It’s a essentially a very stylized depiction of an attic.
“This is the aesthetic that I like. I tend to go a little darker and I like a mix-and-match of things,” says Clouser, who worked with Leslie Fossler Interiors to finish out the interior of the restaurant. “It’s filled with items that don’t necessarily go together but they somehow all come together in the attic. More than anything we wanted this place to be intimate but casual and unpretentious.”
"This is really what we’re calling a ‘FUBU’ kitchen — for us, by us."
During its initial soft opening for friends and family, the foodie sphere was abuzz with praise for the latest entry to Austin’s dining scene. That’s the great thing about this town; we’re always glowing with excitement to welcome the newest belle to the ball. But sometimes, it hampers any level of discernment when trying to objectively assess the nuts and bolts of a new place and help give honest feedback to the people who are trying to make it a lasting success.
My first visit to Swift’s was during the soft opening, and I found a lot to be desired. The corner we sat in had barely any light, leaving us to use iPhone glows to see the food we were eating. The food itself suffered in execution with seasoning (no salt), and presentation, and the service was fragmented and unconfident. But you can’t judge the success of a restaurant through a soft opening. By definition, this is what restaurants use to straighten out all of the little details, streamline the menu, and give the kitchen and front-of-house staff a “trial by fire.”
In fact, in a the few weeks since the restaurant has been officially open, a number of these little kinks have been addressed. The lighting is infinitely better, the staff seems a bit more confident and the few menu items I found particularly lacking in impressiveness have been struck from the list — apparently the chefs felt them problematic as well.
“We had to readjust the menu to help with the ease and use of our kitchen flow,” says Clouser. “It was causing service to get bogged down and that put stress on our people in the front of the house.”
Now the restaurant is in full swing for both dinner, lunch and late night service. And the feedback from the general public has been overwhelmingly positive. So when I had the chance to visit again, my expectations were pretty high. Perhaps that was my first mistake. After all, such an eclectic menu couldn’t possibly be serving on a level 10 this early in the game. And in fact, it wasn’t.
I loved the decor. I loved the music. I loved the vibe. The wait staff could still use a little polish. Though our waitress was on her game and was very knowledgable of the menu and wine list, a minor spill from one of our first dishes was smeared on the wooden table and left to dry throughout the evening — something she should have wiped away immediately.
The food? I’ll be honest. I love the menu and everything it promises to be. And I really wanted to love the food. I anticipated that each arriving dish would be an absolute hit, but in truth, the ‘hits’ were too few, while the ‘misses’ were too many. We had a total of 9 dishes. Here is a little of the feedback:
The Lockhart Quail grilled and served juicy with succulent crispy-salty skin was heavenly, right down to the little bones.
The Broken Arrow Ranch Venison Kabob arrived on a skewer served medium-rare with a side of shaved cucumber salad and red curry yogurt sauce. (My one suggestion would be to give the exterior a smoky, crispier sear to reveal the tender meat inside.)
Popcorn & A Movie and Chocolate 6 Ways, two separate desserts from pastry chef Callie Speer (whose name and style of desserts may seem familiar — she’s the wife of celebrated Uchi/Uchiko pastry chef, Philip Speer). The Chocolate dessert plays on the celebrated sweet treat in a number of different tastes and textures from a light and airy mousse to cocoa pop rocks. The Popcorn & A Movie has everything from salted caramel ice cream to a crunchy house-made candy bar, condensed root beer syrup and a few kernels of addictively sweet-and-salty caramel corn.
The fried Hot Water Cornbread alongside the Lockhart Quail were delicious, but unbelievably dense and chewy. A quality hard to disguise even with the heavenly golden raisin rum butter served with them for dipping.
The Grilled Bread served with the venison kebab had a few grill marks on the exterior, but the bread was very uncooked and overly doughy in the center taking the rest of the dish off balance in texture.
Raw Maine diver scallops with cucumber sorbet and spicy Amarillo sauce was a beautiful dish in presentation. And the cucumber sorbet was light and refreshing. But the scallops did not taste fresh. Having spent a fair amount of time sampling raw fish and sushi, it’s a taste you just can’t mistake. This is where consistency will make a huge difference for this kitchen.
Black Mussels in smoked carrot broth arrived with rich aromatics from the broth. But the mussels themselves were off. The dish was sent back and Clouser was prompt to remedy the problem. Though he explained that the particular mussels were from an area that had undergone extensive silty flooding, there was no mistaking that a couple of these shell fish were just plain bad.
While my hopes for Swift’s Attic weren’t exactly met, I’m not worried. (And Clouser and Northcutt shouldn’t be, either.) The flavor profiles for this ambitious and diverse menu are there, they just need tightening and focus in their execution. Sure, I could have just visited on an “off” night, but with all the expectations placed on this restaurant to play among the big dogs such as Congress/2nd Bar + Kitchen, Uchi, Uchiko, Barley Swine and Contigo, consistency is something Swift’s Attic is going to have to lock down pretty fast. I think they can do it. They are still only a few weeks old, after all, and they certainly have a talented arsenal of chefs to make it happen. I look forward to returning and tasting their progress.