Austinites waited for over a year with bated, La Condesa-sated breath for details on Chef René Ortiz's new Thai restaurant, which were finally released last week.
Sway on South First is the first Asian venture from the La Condesa team, and today Eater Austin talks with restaurateur Jesse Herman about his vision for the restaurant. Herman says he originally imagined Sway in New York City, but after eating fateful and deliciously executed Thai dinner featuring a whole crispy red snapper at Ortiz's home a few years ago, "a lightbulb went on." Both Herman and Ortiz discovered they'd spent time in Australia eating, and in Ortiz's case, cooking, Thai cuisine there—it's as popular as Mexican food is here in Texas—and knew they had to do a Thai restaurant here.
So, can Sway do for Australian-style Thai food what La Condesa did for Mexico City-style cuisine in Austin?
"It helps to have the key personnel you've been working with for a number of years," says Herman, who says he's "extremely confident" about his Sway team, which is comprised of La Condesa veterans. "That helps quite a bit." But ultimately, he says, "It's really René. René thinks his Thai food is better than his Mexican food, and I tend to agree."
Though he originally imagined Sway in New York City, Herman also considered the space that Hopdoddy now occupies on South Congress, but ultimately opted for the South First location instead: "I liked South First in that it had a kind of older Austin feel, but some great neon, funky galleries, cool vintage." Herman thinks the area will "stay more local" and he says he's "very happy to be surrounded by all these other great concepts," like Elizabeth Street Cafe and Lenoir. "It's a pretty powerful food intersection in Austin."
He's particularly excited about the design of Sway, with its open kitchen and communal seating. Because the concept has been "gestating for so long," says Herman, "the vision is so complete." His team was able to save much of the infrastructure of the old tobacco shop that will become the main Sway dining room, and they've added 45 parking spots, which is "really important down in that area." Windows that open on to the restaurant's "spirit garden" will "bathe" the kitchen in light.
"As far as creating a work envinronment for somebody, that kind of openness and being able to see your customers and talk to your customers, as opposed to a back room with florescent lights and ceiling tiles, is really nice," says Herman. Customers are more interested in chefs than ever, thanks to the popularity of the Food Network and Cooking Channel, so this allows them more connection to the kitchen. "People have such a keen interest in food and rest and what chefs do," he says, "and seeing the process of them crafting their art becomes another compnone to the dining experience."
The restaurant is undergoing final inspections now, and then training will begin, with an eye toward opening in late summer. Herman says he's not taking any chances and wants to make sure his staff learns the nitty gritty of Thai cuisine: "We're introducing a totally different type of cuisine, with a lot of Thai words. Having experience doing an ethnic restaurant, I know that training takes time."
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Film crews and construction workers co-exist as Sway takes shape. [Photo: Sway/Facebook]