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.
Jimmys Meatballs $8
Battered Mushrooms $5
House-made Fries $4
SWIG Salad $8
SWIG Burger $12
Meatball Sandwich $9
Flat Bread $9
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.
The salads are great across the board, with fresh, crisp greens and vegetables. My favorite is the namesake, again, which might seem more familiar if referred to as what it is: a Cobb salad. Chopped egg and bacon and a cautious application of rich blue cheese dressing somehow seem healthy, a nice antidote to the heavy versions served at steakhouses and diners.
If these and other snacks, including pork buns and sliders, aren't enough to entice your visit, the staff and the drinking should be. The Kennys owned the Old Monk and the Idle Rich before shifting to the Capitol Pub and now SWIG. They've used their history to cull a smart and spunky staff.
Suzanne waits tables when she's not on stage playing guitar, and she'll gladly show you her killer salsa moves (it's all in the hips). Another waitress rolled with the tentative punches of my indecisive ordering and talked me into drinking bourbon for breakfast. (SWIG offers a passable brunch.) A staff like this is hard to find when opening a new restaurant, and SWIG's roster of available call-ups have made for an easy transition.
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The Kennys did well to keep Scott Melton, too. He was the bar manager back when SWIG was Park, and remained at the space to run all things booze. If Suzanne dreamed up my Sunday afternoon buzz, Melton made it a reality, plying my brain with Bulleit bourbon ramped up with sweet apricot liquor. The cocktail is smooth and drinkable if you're a whiskey person but packs a serious punch. Drink more than one and Sunday afternoon will become Sunday evening in a hurry.
Melton has also assembled one of Dallas' better beer lists, filled with drafts and bottles from across the country, Europe, Argentina and Mexico. You can order a Maredsous Brun Ale or a brew from Rahr while your friend empties Bud bottles, if that's his thing.
In the evenings you'll find Melton tucked away in the very back of the restaurant, in a room dubbed the Gin Mill. The space is too large and open to feel like an illicit, Prohibition-era cocktail den, which is what they were going for, but it's still a great bar, decked out in reds and blacks and awash in the sounds of Radiohead and Vampire Weekend and the like, supplied by the iTunes playlists set up by the staff.
The food offered here is a subset of the menu offered in the dining room, and it happens to cull some of the restaurant's better dishes. In fact, ordering at the Gin Mill's bar turns out to be a safe way to navigate SWIG's somewhat rudderless menu. Mostly, though, it's a place to have a drink — not to sip or swill, but swig, a name that may not roll off the tongue, but describes the best use of your time both in the back and up front.