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4th & Swift dining review, Atlanta

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A couple of years ago, I visited 4th & Swift with a friend who had just moved back to town after a long spell in the West. Still shell-shocked by the old-yet-newness of everything, he glanced around the room, down at the menu, to the dressy foursome at the next table, and said, “Wow. This is such an Atlanta restaurant.”

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

I knew what he meant. Here was another high-ceilinged warehouse space, another selection of tricked-out Southern comfort food, another crowd looking for a scene. We drank a nice bottle of wine and sawed at pork chops (from a dish with the cutesy name “Three Little Pigs”). We agreed our expensive meal was pretty good but no more. Not as exciting as Rathbun’s, nor as refined as Restaurant Eugene, nor as chill as One Midtown Kitchen.

A couple of weeks ago, I finally gave 4th & Swift another shot. We were lucky enough to take our seats as dusk was turning to night, and the pendant lamps cast pockets of warm glow against the whitewashed brick and concrete walls. It was the kind of canny light that makes you notice every detail – every candle, every flower arrangement, every bottle behind the bar, every plate of beautiful food the waiters hand-carry as they stream from the kitchen pass at the far end of the dining room.

When did 4th & Swift turn into a great restaurant?

Venison with kabocha squash puree (photos by Becky Stein)

Venison with kabocha squash puree (photos by Becky Stein)

While the food is mostly excellent, the greatness comes from the whole package. Chef-owner Jay Swift has surrounded himself with a crack team – from pastry chef Chrysta Umberger to general manager Seth Roskind – who work toward a unified vision of what casual fine dining can and should be. A consistency of tone extends from the room design, to the look of the food, to the tenor of the service. It’s a feeling of warm precision, wholly unique in this city.

Umberger, a great talent who honed her skills at Restaurant Eugene, will have you at butt-sinking-onto-cushion hello with her dinner rolls. They arrive with soft butter – hot enough to make your fingers dance, daintily sized enough to make you succumb. Just one, you say. But there are two: soft honey rolls and crusty sourdough. Alas, you need both.

The menu speaks of a kitchen with a rare sense of industry. The top page proposes a daily “market menu” with a dozen or so specials, from appetizers to vegetable sides and cocktails, with plenty of room devoted to fresh fish. Turn to the next page, and you have a “seasonal menu” that’s no slouch. Unusual proteins such as pheasant and venison remind you that this is why you eat out.

Swift plates with an eye to color and shape and not just for decoration, but to underscore his approach to flavor. Consider a stunning piece of flounder ($25) seared to a crisp in a sauté pan and thick enough to steam when cut. Now place it over potato “risotto,” by which I mean precision-cut little cubes. Decorate it with romanesco cauliflower (that spiky green variety that looks like a succulent from an alien terrarium) and a bright pool of tomato vinaigrette. All these sharp textures and flavors work like a squeeze of lemon on the mild fish, but to far better effect.

Likewise, a Niman Ranch “club steak” ($33) presents a double-thick, half-length cut of New York strip. It comes cut open to reveal its red flesh, with larger, crisper potato cubes, turnip greens and a vibrant pool of tangy tomatillo coulis. Sharp edges mark both the textures and flavors of this tasty dish, and your fork will dart here and there to assemble them. (My one complaint: You need serious molars to chew this grass-fed beef.)

But then consider a special of crispy-creamy veal sweetbreads ($13) sitting in a round cast-iron casserole over soft polenta buttery orbs of hakurei turnips, all of it as soft and round on the palate as to the eye. I really love this appetizer, particularly with a sip of Larochette Manciat Mâcon Les Morizottes 2009 ($46), a French chardonnay that escorts us through the meal with its clean focus, appealing roundness and minerality.

Crispy brussels sprouts

Crispy brussels sprouts

The two-menu approach seems really smart. Sometimes you want to taste the spontaneity of a special; sometimes you want to taste the refinement in a dish the kitchen has prepared over and over. I remember the crispy Brussels sprouts with apple salad ($9) from before, but it wasn’t this good, with each halved sprout cooked until the outer leaves blister, crunch and curl and the inside surrenders to cabbagey sweetness.

The wood-roasted venison ($29) also comes off as a well-practiced dish, with spiced kabocha squash puree and sweet pomegranate jus lapping against meltingly tender meat. It’s one of those dishes that tastes engineered to make you go “ooooooh.”

I’ve had several items that needed a touch more ooooooh. The dishes always come smartly dressed on their plates, but a few lack depth. A confit duck thigh appetizer ($10) is a crisp-skinned beauty sitting on a mound of wilted red cabbage and a buckwheat pancake. A fine black pepper gastrique (a sweet-and-sour stock based sauce) bridges the flavors well. But the duck itself should be tender and taste of spice and aromatics. It’s not great confit.

Butternut squash soup ($8) comes with fun garnishes of bourbon crema and sprinkles of vadouvan, a French curry powder made with roasted shallot that gives it a kind of onion-dip yumminess. But the soup itself is a velvety bore. The smashed root vegetable cannelloni ($17) brings a tube of orange squish wrapped in pasta swimming in a Parmesan broth. The only flat-out miss I’ve encountered here, it’s the kind of vegetarian entree that few vegetarians actually want.

Chef/owner Jay Swift

Chef/owner Jay Swift

Dessert fiends, on the other hand, will want one of each from Umberger’s unique dessert menu, as sophisticated as it is fun. Her toffee and coffee ($5) pairs an inhalable sticky toffee pudding with coffee cream. Her chocolate crémeux ($6) is all chic indulgence, and one of several chocolate creations. I loved the dessert called Snap, Crackle, Pop ($6) that involves white chocolate, tangerines, Rice Krispie treats and Pop Rocks. It’s off the menu now, but I plan to picket until they bring it back.

Big props go to the wait staff that marches with food through the dining room, standing ramrod straight like runway models but smiling a lot more. This is a stellar crew of folks who can go through all the napkin refolding, menu reciting and tablecloth decrumbing without self-consciousness. They convince you that you’re in a friendly place.

I should also applaud Roskind’s wine list, which is far from huge but filled with bottles in the $25-$50 range. It also offers a small treasure trove of alternative whites like Spanish Godello and Italian Falanghina. The list of reds is equally diverse, and smart with its splurges. I’ve got my eye on that L’Arco Valpolicella Classico Superiore ($81) for my next visit and another order of venison.

That next visit won’t be another two years. I’ve decided that 4th & Swift is absolutely an Atlanta restaurant. A defining one, at that.

4TH & SWIFT
621 North Ave., Atlanta, 678-904-0160
4stars5
Food: thoughtful modern American cooking
Service: friendly, but could be a bit more attentive to uneaten food
Best dishes: crispy brussels sprouts, venison with squash puree, toffee and coffee dessert
Vegetarian selections: a few, including a vegetarian pasta entree and some good side dishes that collect nicely
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Hours: dinner, 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; brunch, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sundays
Children: bring a perfect angel or get a baby-sitter
Parking: complimentary valet as well as self-parking
Reservations: yes
Wheelchair access: yes
Smoking: on the patio only
Noise level: moderate
Patio: yes
Takeout: the kitchen will offer takeout on slower nights but doesn’t encourage it
ratings_key_febUSE

47 comments Add your comment

FoodFan

March 17th, 2011
9:55 am

Great review John. I’ll have to go try it out again, since this line EXACTLY summed up my feelings last time: “We agreed our expensive meal was pretty good but no more. Not as exciting as Rathbun’s, nor as refined as Restaurant Eugene, nor as chill as One Midtown Kitchen”

Doc Hollidawg

March 17th, 2011
10:35 am

Ate here for the first time this past Saturday. The food and service were outstanding…..and so were the cocktails. I also thought that everything was very fairly priced for the quality (both food and service) that we received. Can’t wait to go back.

Kristen

March 17th, 2011
11:11 am

Thanks for the updates. After a disappointing meal at Dogwood last weekend, will have to give 4th and Swift a try. The venison looks stunning!

RK

March 17th, 2011
11:19 am

I enjoyed the Brussels Sprouts, but 4 for $9 is ridiculous. Three little pigs was fine…sounds like Foodfan and I agree. I did have a very interesting cocktail, though, that involved pine…

Lorenzo

March 17th, 2011
11:26 am

I, too, ate there–once–a couple of years ago, for my then-girlfriend’s birthday. Though it was great for the special occasion, my wife and I have not been back, because we felt it was on the expensive side for what one could find elsewhere. As I recall, we almost laughed at the amount of attention the servers and everyone else gave us; it seemed like every five minutes a different person would ask us if everything was alright. It bordered on annoying. I almost did something I have never done and asked the staff to leave us alone for a few minutes. That aspect had little to do with our reluctance to return, but it stuck in my memory.

Pierson

March 17th, 2011
11:47 am

I agree entirely. I was there when it first opened, and not again until last month. I have eaten there 3 times in the last 6 weeks!

Lourann

March 17th, 2011
11:54 am

This is by far my favorite restaurant in Atlanta. Even after my 5th visit, it has yet to disappoint! I have recommended to several friends and received rave reviews. Beyond the food, the staff is what makes this restaurant stand out. Each time I have submitted a review on Open Table, the manager has responded personally with kind words. I will certainly be back!

atltrafficqueen

March 17th, 2011
12:13 pm

“Dear Sirs: I never thought the letters in your magazine were true. Until…”

John, this column should have come with a warning label – “DON’T READ THIS AT WORK.” It takes food porn to a whole new level. I think 4th & Swift is about to get bombarded with reservations. Outstanding review, probably one of the best I’ve ever read. Thank you.

Bubba

March 17th, 2011
12:29 pm

Fresh Air BBQ in Jackson, GA

Since 1929

The mother church of BBQ in Georgia

OTPer

March 17th, 2011
12:36 pm

Fourth & Swift is our absolute favorite restaurant in Atlanta. There are so many great things on the menu. Nothing else is comparable.

crackbaby

March 17th, 2011
1:01 pm

John,

Thanks for the review. I still wonder why grilled meats and fish are universally served on wet substrates (risotto, starches, etc.). It is soooo wrong!

FYI – Please include the zip in the address in your review. G* Maps provide directions to the “other North Ave” (near West Boling Park). Prolly not where this clientele wants to end up after dark… ;-)

Best to use this addy for your directions: 621 North Avenue NE Atlanta GA 30308

Suze

March 17th, 2011
1:12 pm

So glad to see this review. I have always loved 4th and Swift. Guess it just became harder to get a table!

Ross

March 17th, 2011
1:19 pm

Congrats Jay and the rest of the 4th and Swift crew. As a neighbor we have loved having such a great restaurant at our fingertips since your opening. There are few restaurants in town with such a great mix of scale. A large space that can feel as comfortable and private as your own dining room, particularly if you have a large group at one of the chef’s tables. Excited for your soon to come rush of new customers.

Observer

March 17th, 2011
2:12 pm

Everyone needs to read Crumpy reviews. He is the man when it comes to Atlanta dining.

purpledaisee

March 17th, 2011
2:16 pm

i have to agree with atltrafficqueen. after this review, i am in lust. sounds like a must try!

John Kessler

March 17th, 2011
2:30 pm

crackbaby – Actually, Swift serves most of the sauces and purees on the side. I think (can’t totally remember) that the squash puree was a bit off to the side when we ate it in the restaurant. Interesting, subtle point you make…

ATLien

March 17th, 2011
2:35 pm

Any place who gets me to eat and profess my love of brussel sprouts is a winner.
I’m a big fan of 4th and Swift. Love the food and cocktails (Bring back the Old 4th ward cocktail!!). I wasn’t a fan of their desserts until Roskind insisted we have dessert one night and alerted us to their new pastry chef (well, new to them at the time). It was the cherry on top.
Great review!

Southern Boy.

March 17th, 2011
2:36 pm

Or, go to Waffle House.

Southern Boy.

March 17th, 2011
2:56 pm

Sounds fu-fu. ew-ew.

Southern Boy.

March 17th, 2011
2:58 pm

I’m with you Elvis. The food descriptions sound WEIRD.

Ted Striker

March 17th, 2011
3:36 pm

An excellent, excellent review, John Kessler. Thank you.

Native Atlantan

March 17th, 2011
4:01 pm

My favorite restaurant in Atlanta. Go back every chance I get and have never been disappointed and have turned quite a few friends on to it as well. The entire menu is outstanding, great drink options…and the desserts are beyond belief, especially the sticky toffee pudding. A few of us have laughed that we may have dinner out, but would hit 4th and Swift for dessert every time! Nothing short of outstanding.

A.J.

March 17th, 2011
4:02 pm

Think you’ve got this place very wrong. Went for Midtown restaurant week last year. Great drinks, terrible food. So much so I haven’t been back, nor have the other 7 people that were with me that night.

JRC

March 17th, 2011
4:27 pm

This is the first review in which I fear your well known status has affected the review. I agree with most of your points, save one. The menu is creative and inviting, the space is beautiful and also inviting, and the service was spot on. Where I found the restaurant lacking the highest praise was execution. Some dishes, like the pitch perfect charcuterie, are beyond reproach. Others were great in concept and executed unevenly. My venison was nicely seasoned and cooked, but plopped on top of a bed of overly stiff and unbearably salty kale. And I like salt a lot. My experience leaned more towards your first impression: good, not great.

I will give it another shot, but I wonder John if you are immune to the mistakes the rest of us see on a busy Friday because they take care to execute everything that hits your table? I love your writing, but was surprised to see this restaurant get your first 4 star rating.

DHM

March 17th, 2011
4:48 pm

4th and Swift and Swift is great!! Chef Chrysta Umberger is an incredible Chef!! Her dinner rolls are incredible!!!! Her desserts are deliscous!! Her husband is also a chef, His name is Johnny! He is the chef for Smokejack BBQ & Southern Grill. His food is equally incredible. I frequent both places semi-regularly. I want to make reservations at thier house for dinner!

DHM

March 17th, 2011
4:52 pm

Wow they changed their name? Just kiding, only one “and swift”.

DHM

March 17th, 2011
4:58 pm

Plus I can’t spell to save my life. But the best part is I am absolutely spot on regarding the food!

Steve

March 17th, 2011
5:04 pm

Probably my favorite restaurant in town. Glad to hear it’s even getting better :)

John Kessler

March 17th, 2011
5:16 pm

JRC – Of course that is something I always worry about, but I have to call it like I taste it. As always, I spent a lot of time looking at the plates going through the dining room, and they all seemed to be executed with an equal degree of finesse. If you read the review again, you will see a few misses, but not enough to cost the place a star. For what it’s worth, my first 4-star review was of Empire State South. To my taste, I like the food there better but find the whole experience of 4th & Swift to be a little, um, swifter…

Jay Son

March 17th, 2011
9:55 pm

Atlanta restaurant? Well, I’ve had a number of experiences here that are comprable to experiences that I had at Partners years ago, and I mean that in a good way.

Joan and Tim B.

March 17th, 2011
11:03 pm

My favorite restaurant in Atlanta due to the excellent food and service by Jay, Seth and the rest of the team. Always inviting, fresh and fun, and locally sourced to boot. Congrats to everyone at 4th & Swift!

JRC

March 17th, 2011
11:46 pm

John, thanks for taking the time to address my query. You did mention a few misses, and I should know better than to judge a restaurant on one plate of salty kale, but I missed something you got on your visit. I think the difference is purely in the food. Rooms matter, but food matters more. If you have to screw something up, screw up the candles, not the kale.

In reflecting further on our visit, I suppose it would be fair to say that my judgment of the experience was and is colored by my rapidly intensifying boredom with “farm to table” new Southern restaurants. Great chefs have to be terrified to strike out in a new directions while Atlantans flock to semi-chain burger joints and the next pork chop. I respect that fear, and regret that I am unable to bankroll the next risk as someone once did for Joel Antunes. My boredom endures however, and I long for the day Atlanta chefs find there way back to the great traditions of European kitchens, and an occasional sauce. Until then, it is back to Atmosphere for confit.

RT

March 18th, 2011
12:37 am

Excellent review. From day one this has been one of Atlanta’s best restaurants. Seth does a spectacular job with the front of house and Jay always amazes with the food. It is my favorite restaurant in Atlanta. I force myself to try others and not go here every week. But I always keep coming back. You’re right, the Three Little Pigs is a fun dish but probably their weakest. By the way, I’m always amused by the over salting comments in the comments section of almost every review you write. I’ve never had an over salted plate in my life. It amazes me how many people want a bland and under seasoned dish. I want intensity of flavor when I go out. I want reduced veal stock on everything. Butter on top of butter. Cream in things that don’t even need cream. You go out for an indulgence. Enjoy.

Beerealist

March 18th, 2011
12:15 pm

Hindu, Atlanta has exactly one good local brewery, and 4th&Swift carries it. If it is a huge beer selection you seek, I recommend the Brick House in Decatur.

Academic Socialite

March 18th, 2011
5:02 pm

John, really enjoyed your review. We have enjoyed 4th and Swift since the beginning and almost always have terrific food and a terrific experience there. We love it when chef Swift has beef tartare on the menu – always delicious! The desserts are the best in town and we love the drinks, too – among the most interesting around Atlanta. We were inspired to make vodka infused with lavender so that we could replicate one of their delicious cocktails. Needless to say, the 4th and Swift version turned out much better than ours!

Hundu Elvis and others who want a broader beer list, I think 4th and Swift has a terrific beer list. Not at all weak for a fine-dining establishment. Who can argue with Full Sail? And there are lots of other good beers on the menu. 4th and Swift isn’t a gastro-pub. If you’re looking for a “beer experience, ” I agree with the person who suggested you try Brickhouse, or even The Porter (20+ page beer list) Leon’s or Holman and Finch. Maybe they’ll have what you’re after – -

anon

March 19th, 2011
11:57 am

can we get a food critic to please review the “food” at kennesaw state university’s dining commons?

Hindu Elvis Pimp

March 19th, 2011
2:11 pm

Beerealist? Where in Decatur is the Brick House? I never heard of the Brick House….I’ve heard of Brickstore and The Bookhouse Pub.

As far as the one good brewery, you are delusional if you think Sweetwater is that one.

It seems you do not know what you speak of. Until you have even a tenth of a percent of my knowledge, you need to stay away from public blogs with your rhetoric.

MadMatt

March 19th, 2011
6:43 pm

I really enjoyed this review of an excellent restaurant. Not only is it a great restaurant for a nice night out, we had a really wonderful experience there on our anniversary and received a little extra attention from the staff.

I think four stars is right on target for what I would rate 4th and Swift as well, so I think you did a good job on the restaurant review.

Edward

March 20th, 2011
1:17 am

Let “Elivs” go to Taco Mac to enjoy his beer while the rest of us can go to 4th & Swift to enjoy a great dinner sans pompous arrogance.

MimosaM

March 20th, 2011
11:09 am

Mr. Kessler, Yelp users and alternative weekly ‘food critics’ often use vulgari language. In relation to the pleasure of fine dining the slang can be off-putting. You haven’t yet descended to c**p and the like but this sentence shows you’re on your way:

“Umberger…. will have you at butt-sinking-onto-cushion hello with her dinner rolls.”

The same kind of writer who’s mature enough to know how to use the word ‘alas’ needn’t attempt to sound proletarian or ‘younger’ by getting all icky.

MimosaM

March 20th, 2011
11:17 am

RT commented:

“By the way, I’m always amused by the over salting comments in the comments section of almost every review you write. I’ve never had an over salted plate in my life. It amazes me how many people want a bland and under seasoned dish.”

Kessler isn’t alone in finding much of restaurant food over-salted. RT, if you travelled much, you’d realise North Americans -compared to Europeans and Middle Easterners- use far too much salt. You may come from a background or family which went heavy on salt. Or you may smoke cigarettes, which kills off taste buds. Salt is not ’seasoning’ properly. Salt can’t be removed from a dish, but a diner can be provided the option to add salt. If restaurants cater to corrupted palates, then the rest of us suffer. I have nothing against salt. But Americans have hyotension far greater than most other peoples because our prepared foods are often over-salted.

MimosaM

March 20th, 2011
11:30 am

RT, I made an error in my comment above which I can’t edit. I had read JRC’s comment and yours as well regarding salt. JRC- NOT John Kessler had written:

“My venison was nicely seasoned and cooked, but plopped on top of a bed of overly stiff and unbearably salty kale. And I like salt a lot. My experience leaned more towards your first impression: good, not great.”

I stand by my point though. If you, RT, have never had a restaurant dish you perceived was over-salted, something’s wrong with your taste buds. ;)

Addison Steele

March 20th, 2011
11:25 pm

John, a lot of your commenters don’t seem to get that your praise was somewhat backhanded.

Even worse, many seem to be vying for the princess-and-the-pea awards. (The AJC should do a year-end list of the top-20 niggling, pretentious, missing-the-point comments on its restaurant reviews. The competition will be stiff.)

C’mon, people. You’ll enjoy dinner a lot more if you just take a great, imperfect meal for what it is — a really nice thing.

As for me and my wife, we are happy we can always find a place at the bar for a great, effortless dinner. So keep the passive/aggressive review coming.

SalGovernaleRichardChristy

March 20th, 2011
11:35 pm

Considering the length of this review and all details provided by JK, I kid you not : I was going all Meg-Ryan-at-Katz’s-Deli over IT. I was oohing and aahing in one orgasmic delight after another. I did not know what to be more excited over…the restaurant or the review. This gem, for eg, is an instant classic and should be framed in every food lover’s home : “They arrive with soft butter – hot enough to make your fingers dance, daintily sized enough to make you succumb. ” JK, this has to positively be one of your best written pieces. One last thing : considering all the stuff that you sampled/ate, you may have packed in a lot of calories for that week, in that one visit to this place?! The AJC is forgiven for giving us lousy columnists like Bookman and Tucker. We got JK and that more than makes up for your lapses, AJC. JK, thank you sir. You made me fall in love with Atlanta all over again.

John Kessler

March 21st, 2011
10:53 am

Addison – While I’m not unfamiliar with passive aggression, I really don’t think there was any in the review. I really just tried to describe the food at a restaurant that was far better than I recall it being two years ago.

Sal – Thanks so much.

Dave

March 22nd, 2011
11:53 am

Nice, accurate review John. I love this restaurant! The food, the atmosphere, the staff.

Beerealist

March 22nd, 2011
6:37 pm

Really Hindu Punk? How long have you worked for Atlanta Brewing Company?