Wednesday, January 30, 2013


I was invited to a media tasting at the new Australian-influenced modern Thai spot Sway, at South First and Elizabeth Streets. I have lived in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood for a number of years, and as long as I can remember, the spot Sway took over has been an abandoned, gray, cinder block building. It is exciting to see new life in the neighborhood, and when you see Sway from the inside, it's hard to imagine why and how it sat dormant for so long. 

The building was redesigned by award-winning local architect Michael Hsu, who is responsible for quite a number of eateries in town, including Sway's sister restaurant downtown, La Condesa. The interior of Sway is spacious and open, with a somewhat hidden outdoor patio as well. You also get great views of the kitchen staff at work, and counter seating is available to watch your food being made. By and large, it is communal tables that can seat up to twelve. They don't take reservations, unless you're a group of ten or more.
We started off with some drinks, and Sway has quite a range, from sake to kombucha to tea. I was not familiar with "drinking vinegars" and our server explained while they are not uniquely Thai, they are found throughout southeast Asia. Sway serves the brand Pok Pok Som, and I had the tamarind, which is mixed with Topo Chico (sparkling mineral water). Nice and refreshing, and I would have loved a little more tartness in mine! 
The tasting began with the Prawn Miange -- betel leaf, shrimp, toasted coconut and cashews, lime, fresno chili, grapefruit, and dried shrimp. I occasionally see betel leaves in Asian groceries in town, and these are being brought in from Thailand. You just pick the whole leaf up, and pop the whole thing in your mouth for a great medley of flavors and textures.
Raw oysters were next, served with a wonderful sauce they call nahm jim and crispy shallots. Not sure specifically where the oysters were from (we were told east coast), but they went down easy with a light brininess. I loved the sauce, and asked what was in it; they were nice enough to print me the ingredients, and they make two versions, a red and green. I will assume this was the red nahm jim, which consists of Thai red and fresno chiles, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, palm sugar and fish sauce. SO GOOD!
Som tam, or green papaya salad with Thai red chile, cucumbers, green beans, and tamarind. I liked the flavor and texture of this salad -- spicy, a bit twangy, but still light and refreshing.
The next was Pad Thai Jay, which is much sweeter than a normal pad thai. The jay is also vegetarian, while the regular has shrimp. Not sure exactly what contributes the sweetness to this dish, but the more bites I took, the more I realized just how sweet is was. Staff at the tasting said it is something they have been made aware of by their customer base, but as of yet don't have plans to change it. Of all the dishes we sampled, this is really the only one I wouldn't order again.
Now the Kai Yaang, or charcoal rotisserie chicken, was fabulous! It was marinated in the delicious nahm jim sauce before cooking. The result was a tender, moist, and very flavorful chicken. The darkened skin was rendered nicely, and extremely hard to resist.
The Salt and Pepper Tofu used silken tofu, and had a nice sweet chile sauce. Thought the blocks of tofu could have been a touch crispier.
Finally, the Jungle Curry -- Texas Wagyu beef, red chile, eggplant, kaffir lime leaves, baby corn, green peppercorns, and coconut cream on top. The beef was fork-tender, and while the curry had some heat, you could temper it with the coconut cream. Not pictured are the jasmine and sticky rices that accompanied these dishes, and were great for soaking up some of the curry sauce. This and the chicken were my two favorites of the meal, and I can't wait to try them again!
For dessert, we had Jasmine Tea Panna Cotta. It had an extremely subtle jasmine flavor, accompanied by red grapes and lychees, holy basil caviar dots, crunchy amaranth, and coconut-lychee sorbet. Look at the bowl, it's a beautiful presentation! The sorbet and crunchy amaranth bits (something new to me!) really shined.
If you look at all the pictures, you'll notice that each one is topped with at least one thing for flavor and particularly texture, whether it's dried shrimp or shallots, toasted coconut or crunchy amaranth. All the plates are presented well with these little touches, and the flavors are bold and exciting. This is not your standard Thai fare, and that's a good thing, just as Sway is a great new thing in the neighborhood.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

2nd Bar + Kitchen

A blustery, cold January night -- one of the few we've had in Austin this winter -- was the night that one of my best foodie friends and I ventured downtown. We were rather windblown when we arrived a bit past 5:30 pm at Chef David Bull's 2nd Bar + Kitchen in the Austonian building at 2nd and Congress.  Since we were there for an early dinner, we had no problem getting a table, and were seated in a corner booth spot, facing the bar.

Studying the drink menu, I was reminded of a cocktail I had there once before for a social media tasting, a couple months after they opened. Gin and Jam -- Citadelle gin on the rocks with a spoonful of housemade raspberry jam. What's on the current menu is different -- Monopolowa Gin with a cranberry jam. I had never been a gin fan before that first gin and jam cocktail, and our server assured me that this version was equally good if not better with the Austrian Monopolowa. He turned out to be quite correct, as it was very smooth with a touch of sweet and tart from the jam.

We started with Bacon + Eggs, which is some very nicely crisped pork belly, a poached egg, frisee, a touch of orange (juice? zest? not sure what form it took), and a maple gastrique. It was really quite delicious. The pork belly had great texture, and I am starting to like eggs with runny yolks! The maple added just the small bit of sweetness needed for a contrast, and the orange addition did make it reminiscent of eating bacon, eggs and orange juice for breakfast. This is considered one of their Small Plates, and at $12, certainly worth it.
We were both excited about the charcuterie plate from the Snack portion of the menu, and got a chuckle out of the description "appropriate condiments." I realize in retrospect, we should have asked what was on the day's plate, as I expected there to be some cured meats, like a sausage or cured ham, but it was all pates and rillettes, so everything was fairly similar texturally. The offerings were all good, but again, a bit more variety would have been nice. From the back left: rabbit rillette with a Dijon-style mustard and chicken pate, and in the front, pork and beef pate, and pork rillette in the cup. The appropriate condiments were a grainy mustard and cornichons and pickled vegetables. I think the two rillettes were my favorites.
We split one large plate, the pappardelle with truffled ricotta, shaved fennel, roasted mushrooms, and added the veal meatballs. The meatballs were a disappointment in both size and taste. There were five very small meatballs, about and inch in diameter, and they were a bit dried out. Looking carefully now at the picture, I think they sat under the salamander broiler for too long. You can see how some of the cheese as well as some of the pasta got a toasted, and the small size of the meatballs suffered from the extra heat. The rest of the dish was good, a mild truffle flavor, and very wide ribbons of pasta; the fennel added an extra layer of flavor which complimented everything well. It was a good dish but not outstanding.
For dessert, we had the Lemon Curd Brulee with "jalapeno caramel and cornbread ice cream." I wonder if the menu description was totally accurate, because what was presented was a cornmeal tartlet with lemon curd, bruleed on top, with salted caramel, and a red jalapeno jam. I wouldn't say the ice cream was cornbready at all. The whole thing was tasty, but not as the menu would lead you to believe.
They also have "bites" on the dessert menu, and I was debating between chocolate brownie and pudding pops. I let the waiter talk me into the pudding pops, though I think I should have gone with my gut, and picked the brownie. The graham cracker crunch was lacking in the crunch part, so there wasn't enough textural contrast.
Apart from the hostess, the other staff we saw all looked a bit scruffy. Jeans and long sleeve t-shirts seem to be the norm there for waiter dress code, but some of them looked like they rolled out of bed from an upstairs apartment in the Austonian. I think we were both surprised by the casualness. 2nd B + K shares its kitchen with Congress, the upscale establishment with prix-fixe three or seven course menus. I have heard that Congress is sheer perfection, so I wonder if the kitchen gives that side of the house their extra attention. Nothing came up totally short in our meal, but I would say there's room for some improvements.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bits and Bites

Openings + Offerings
-- There is a new food delivery service, Beetnik, that's based in Austin, but apparently ships nationally too, calling themselves "farm to web." They're advocating wholesome, healthy meals! Check out their website for their offerings.

-- Buzz Mill Coffee House (plus beer) is a new 24-hour spot, on East Riverside, by Emo's. Adjacent to them is The Blue Ox trailer, serving BBQ and pancakes.

-- Up in Georgetown, the El Monumento Restaurant is now open for weekend brunches from 11am - 2pm, as well as daily lunches and dinners. From their press release they are a home-style Mexican restaurant...."inspired by the simple, farm-to-table food served by Mexican families on the grand haciendas of South Texas and Central Mexico."

-- Banger's has what I have heard to be the best lunch special in town -- $8 for one of their traditional or veggie sausages, plus a side, and a Texas beer.

-- The Backspace is now open for lunch from 11a - 2p, Monday through Saturday. I had a great meal there during Austin Restaurant Week!

-- PhoNatic, a locally owned Vietnamese spot on Anderson Road is planning rapid expansion this coming year. They're starting with a spot in Soutpark Meadows at IH-35 and Slaughter, and hope to have a total of six locations open by 2014.

-- January 29, Jack Allen's Kitchen is hosting the 3rd Annual Lone Star Paralysis Tequila Bash; tickets are $150/person, and can be purchased here. Five chefs, five different tequila labels, and one cigar roller will round out this benefit event. 

-- Fonda San Miguel will host a tequila pairing dinner on February 5th.

-- Restaurant Jezebel (where jackets are required) will be having a special Valentine's Day menu, five courses for $200/person, very limited seating, reserve now. 

-- No Valentine's date? Head to TenOak for a singles mingles party on February 14th!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Snack Bar


Snack Bar has been in the heart of South Congress (in the old El Sol y La Luna spot, next to the Austin Motel) for a few years now, but I had only ever been once before for a brief visit. I met a friend there earlier this week and got to relax with a drink (sangria!) and some various dishes of food as we caught up.

I would call Snack Bar as having an eclectic menu, ranging from eggs and French toast for breakfast, sandwiches and salad options for lunch, and smaller plates -- from pate to sardines to fries and larger plates -- ramen, steak, root veggies for dinner offerings. Largely, I see Asian and Mediterranean influences throughout the menu -- something for everyone. They are also supporters of local food resources, which is always good!

We started with the flash-fried Brussels sprouts, which were delicious! Crispy, savory, well-seasoned, and the herb aioli on the side added creaminess and a touch of sweet if desired. We gobbled these up and could have easily eaten more. 
Next up was the Tamago Yoko, their take on the Japanese okonomiyaki -- think a large latke or shredded vegetable cake, this one made from cabbage, leeks, bacon, shrimp, with wasabi aioli and sriracha on top. It was not quite as good as the one I had from the Osaka Soul trailer last year (my previous post is here; Osaka Soul seems to be on a lengthy hiatus), but it was pretty darn good. The sriracha, as expected has a bit of a punch to it, but I didn't really get a whole lot of wasabi from the aioli; the whole thing could have been a bit crispier in my book, but the flavors were good. It does come with two over-medium eggs on top, which we asked for on the side; my friend is not an egg eater at all, and I am now just starting to like eggs with runny yolks. So the eggs, not pictured, were on a separate plate, and I DID eat mine with the Tamago Yoko. And I enjoyed it.
The mac and cheese (pictured above in the crock) was really the only thing that disappointed, as the macaroni was fairly mushy, and no discernible breadcrumbs (as advertised) on top.

For dessert we had Cookies + Cream -- house cookies with a scoop of vanilla Blue Bell ice cream; in this case, the cookies were a fluffy snickerdoodle style. 
Overall it was a good experience, and we had a good server. I do wonder though if they can be consistently good in all of their food, as they are open B, L, and D and they serve such a range of foods. I know I've been a bit critical of places like Cafe Malta (and I was there two weeks ago, and it was the same story) of trying too hard with different dishes and/or flavors, and then not all of them come through on a dish. However, given their location, in the heart of a touristy area, they can probably get by without 100% perfection. But it does make me wonder why I don't ever really hear any buzz on Snack Bar. More tourists than locals? Not sure, but I would go back!