It's taken me a couple of weeks to figure out how I feel about Sway. It didn't take long to recognize it as beautiful, almost magically insulated from the outside world. It didn't take long to see the ambition in the menu, the innovation in the 100% communal table structure or the knowledge of the people working. But in the end, for what it set out to be, I don't think Sway quite made it over the bar.
Sway got a few things absolutely right. The location, right across the street from Elizabeth Street Cafe and Gourdough's, couldn't be hotter, and the people behind Sway, the same folks that brought us La Condesa, could not have built a structure better suited to the space. It is all peace and simple elegance - with no hint that traffic is blustering down South First a few feet from the entrance. Even the sign - a wordless neon lotus flower - gives a little nudge toward the chic calm vibe.
The tables are all communal - massive squares seating about a dozen folks each. The effect is the opposite of what you'd expect with communal seating - the tables are so large that I was actually further away from the people sitting near me than I'd have been at conventional tables, with none of the awkward empty feeling that you can get in a sparsely populated restaurant (we were in at a pretty dead time, mid afternoon).
The menu is limited, and shifting, but well conceived. A few curries, a few noodle dishes, a few small plates, everything with little surprising touches. The dessert menu takes the entire avant-garde Thai thing to an entirely different level - a wild mix of savory and sweet ingredients that came together surprisingly well. The coffee is a special Cuvee blend.
So all this is A+ material. It creates a place you want to love, creates a positive flow that makes little imperfections invisible. Until it doesn't. Sway started off strong, but by the end of the meal, I it seemed clear that they weren't quite up to the task they set themselves up to accomplish.
Neon Lotus Chicken Salad was my favorite of the starters - and maybe my favorite of the meal. I've never had Lotus root before this, and the razor thin fried pieces added a gorgeous nutty crunch to a tart, bright citrus dressing. The peanut curry, with confit chicken leg, was almost fantastic, the chicken meltingly tender, but it was pulled down by an overpowering wallop of salt that drowned out some of the other flavors. Tiger Cry was better, with rare slices of what can often be a pretty tough cut made simply tender and delicate. It was all good, but at the same time I couldn't help feeling like this was a bit of an opportunity missed - with this much control over each ingredient these could have been truly great dishes - but they were merely good. The simpler fare - mostly sides - were better executed - we finished the green beans quickly.
The final element though - and in some ways the moment that broke the suspension of disbelief for good - was the coffee. I adore Cuvee. This not just the best coffee roasted in the neighborhood - IMHO Cuvee is the single best roaster in the country. But what arrived when I ordered a cup of the Sway house blend Cuvee coffee was the single worst executed french press I'd ever encountered. The coffee was ground into boulders - far coarser than what you'd expect for a French Press. It was brought to me without any indication of how long it'd been steeping and generated the most under-extracted, off temp cup of coffee I've had in ages. I looked down at my cup of off color liquid with bits of coffee ground swirling around and realized that something was very wrong here.
Full blogger disclosure - I really enjoyed the meal while I was eating it. Loved it for a bit. But the power of getting that disaster of a cup of coffee along with our $100 lunch bill (two of us, no drinks), was enough to cast a heavy shadow. When you play at this level, it's not enough to get most things right. You've got to get everything right.