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.”
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?
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.
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.
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 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