By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
The sun just set on SWIG, the new bar and grill at the heart of Henderson Avenue, and a pair of valets are already hard at work, cramming cars in the small parking lot that runs alongside the restaurant. Inside, customers sip on craft and import beers, wine by the glass and updated cocktails inspired by classic mixology. They're probably here — in SWIG or in its bar-within-a-bar, the Gin Mill — for great food and drinks. Unless they ordered really wisely, they're only getting one of the two.
If they are Knox-Henderson regulars, they probably recognize the space, which was once a restaurant called Park. Donald Chick sold it in 2009 after he renovated the building with a modernist flare — half Eames house, half Zen garden. Peter Kenny, who also owns Capitol Pub and the Dubliner, bought it and declared it an "urban beer garden."
Out front a beautiful space paved in pea gravel is pinned between the building's facade and a busy Henderson Ave. Tables and benches of rough hewn lumber and steel provide outdoor seating in booths that line the perimeter, and a table that circles a small tree twinkles from a strand of Christmas lights.
A water feature anchors the patio — a cascading fountain bathing the space in liquid white noise. This is unquestionably a cool place to drink. So cool, in fact, that on the night I visited, a few fellow travelers even braved the outdoors despite a bout of unseemly weather, fighting the cold air with knit caps, hoodies and gloves.
Inside, a fireplace crackles with oak beneath a mantel of turquoise glazed brick. Electric heaters supplement the glow, hanging from exposed rafters. You're inside, but you're not, and that babbling fountain filtering though wide-open louvers draws your mind and mood back outdoors.
A pair of women perch like birds on bar stools, sitting on their ankles not for comfort but for height. A long table that runs perpendicular to the room straddles a step, making patrons on one side sit a few inches higher then patrons on the other. It's unsettling if you're on the short side, but a height-deprived diner might appreciate the view from higher ground — a dominant position from which to strike first when flatbreads arrive.
Ah yes. Food. There are, to start, those flatbreads, which should be ordered for the toppings, not the crust. The bread is thin and uninspired, but it makes a fine vehicle to deliver sweet, oven-roasted tomatoes, melted mozzarella and arugula.
In a kitchen that boasts house-made pickles and fresh-cut fries, the charcuterie plays it mostly safe. A pâté is made in-house but salami, bresaola and prosciutto all hail from Italy, and the cheeses are mostly European as well. The menu sadly neglects local dairies like Veldhuizen and Caprino Royale.
Sandwiches come up short, too. The vegetarian boasts mozzarella, arugula and fried zucchini, but it's bland. Perhaps the lemony caper aioli they use could be bestowed with a bit more zing, and be used more aggressively to moisten what is ultimately a dry sandwich. That dryness is a shame, too, since the bread, from Esmeralda's Bakery, is actually a nice ciabatta-like loaf.
The banh mi suffers a similar fate, even though the slow-roasted pork featured in the sandwich is tender, slightly sweet and full of porcine flavor. Pickles lack sufficient crunch and vinegary brightness to tango with the pork, the pâté seems lost if not non-existent and the whole thing could use a bit more heat. If you're called to order a sandwich here, stick with the meatball version, whose meatballs are supplied by Jimmy's. The hometown hero won't let you down.
Seafood, on the other hand, will. During my second visit, a wafting plate of fish and chips had me singing Skynyrd's popular song, referring not to reefer but fish that's past its prime. A mussels dish boasted a similar funk. At first I wasn't sure if the mollusks or the bacon dashi they swam in were responsible for the odor, but a handful of unopened shells — the sign of dead mollusks that should be yanked before serving — outed the kitchen's misstep.
Besides, mussels laced with the flavors of Japan are out of place in a restaurant that features flatbreads and a meatball hoagie. It's a common problem at SWIG, whose menu traverses the globe with flavors from France, Italy, Japan, southeast Asia and elsewhere. It's a menu straight from the hipster-restaurant playbook. That might resonate with the clientele I saw there over my visits, but it won't stand for more discerning diners.
Peter's wife, Cheryl Kenny, is responsible for the menu design, but she turned the cooking over to Casey Holmes. Holmes, who came from Whole Foods, demonstrates some ability, but his cooking might shine more brightly if the menu was more focused.
Still, SWIG boasts several options that are worth an order if you find yourself drinking here, which is why you should come in the first place. The namesake burger, topped with funky Gorgonzola and onions cooked down into a sweet compote, belongs on any burger to-do list. French fries pass too; they're cut in-house and blanched, then fried and served with a family of dippers: smoky ranch, horseradish cream, mustard seed sauce and more.