8.57am, Thursday 25th October, Downtown Houston, Texas, USA
Morning folks, and it’s another steamy old start to the day here in southern Texas. The locals will even tell you they don’t have four seasons here – just ‘some days are not as hot or humid than others’! So whilst up north in Maryland, DC, New York and New Jersey where ive been for the last few weeks, and it’s all about the Fall colours and splitting and stacking firewood as it chills down towards the snow and holiday season – down here in Texas it’s all about pouring huge amounts of liquid through your body to stay hydrated, and eating gloriously refried in lard Tex Mex beans or the best beef brisket in the world rubbed with spice, marinated and slow cooked for 18 hours to fall apart texture, smothered in secret recipe sauces – all outside of a sultry evening!!
Which brings me to one of the most memorable places I’ve been lucky enough to see this whole last year out and about on the road. It’s in Austin, Texas – and is the brand new only open since June this year “Swift’s Attic”. It’s an upstairs eatery at the corner of Third and Congress streets in Austin’s ‘Warehouse District’, and is so named because it was a storage loft of sorts for the Swift Premium Food Company circa 1905. You’ll know you’re at the right place, as the narrow single door to the staircase has the Swifts Attic signage that looks a bit like an ornate swallow or bluebird tattoo.
We were at Swifts Attic to do a trade lunch with our young blokes about town in Austin – Nick Picciandra and Josh Pruett from our new distributor in Texas Domaines Estates – the fine wine section of Glazers. The minds behind Swifts are CK Chin and Stuart Thomajan, and they’ve been able to put three distinct dining areas into the one uncluttered space. They’ve captured that old Americana ‘manufactured by hand here’ feel to the whole place by using industrial electrical fixtures, turn of the century lights, reclaimed door handles threaded on wire as a screen, even punched holes in galvanized buckets to use as lampshades above the high top tables in the front windows. Above the same tables is an old painted wall advertisement for the “Sunset Central” Texas Railroad, which was uncovered whilst renovating the restaurant – obviously the loft was added as a first floor, and the advertisement on the outer wall of an old downtown warehouse became the painted over inner wall for Swifts Foods.Its interesting, because at the time – circa 1905 – there had been an explosion of spider webs of railroad tracks criss crossing Texas, and the Sunset Central line was a bit of a combination of three railroad company networks – Houston & Texas Central, Galveston Harrisburg & San Antonio, and Texas and New Orleans. Great historical stuff, right there up on the wall.
**Historical perspective – in 1861, Riesling vines were being planted at Pewsey Vale Vineyard – one of the first vineyards planted in Australia – 6 miles from Yalumba in the Eden Valley wine growing region, and there were 9 railroad companies in Texas with 470 miles of track – everything exploded after that in both arenas.
Back to present day Austin – to Swifts. Opposite this front dining ‘salon’, at the end of a bar dining counter with old steel swivel seats, is a length of the wall Chesterfield style banquette that is definitely a ‘trap for young players’! It would not be hard to kill a reasonable amount of time parked in that lounge, legs stretched out, working through a couple of the ‘Modern American Small Plates’ on Swifts lunch, dinner and supper menu! Speaking of the menu, you have three top local track record chefs on board – Mat Clauser – in charge, native Texan and describes himself as a ‘bit of a corsair water dog’ -so for my money is definitely worth further investigation!, Zack Northcutt (sous) local legendary Meat Man, and Callie Speer (pastry) who also has the specialist dessert company Cakemix with her husband, another pastry chef Phillip.
And what did we choose to go with our wines on the day? A whole dose of the small plates to start with – perfect for the middle weight set that we opened with – Yalumba Y series Riesling, Y Viognier, Y series Shiraz Viognier, Bushvine Grenache, and The Strapper Grenache Shiraz Mataro. From the top, the matching plates were – Squid ‘fries’ with roasted garlic aoli charred lemon and herb salad, Blistered Shishito Peppers with a lime mayo dipping sauce (for non Americans – Shishito peppers are magic ‘green’ savory things with a medium slow burn heat – and the Y Viognier just seems to lap them up! ), and the Crispy twice cooked duck wings (confit first!) with a black bean glaze and celery kimchi. I kid you not – it was love at first sight between those and the Bushvine Grenache and The Strapper! So far so good on the day. I think we have easily illustrated the point that our wines at Yalumba are made to match with food, have balance and aromatics coming out of their ears, and are tailor made to be the pleasant surprise from the ‘Australian Wine Category’ that no one over here was really expecting. But there was more to come! Sorry I don’t have pictures of the ‘main’ plates – I was talking descriptions of the wines in pairs and answering rapid fire questions on sustainability, provenance, organic, biodynamic, stelvin closures v cork………your usual wine centric stuff at lunch!
Up through the weights we went, introducing the 2006 ‘Cigar’ Coonawarra Cabernet, the ‘Scribbler’ Barossa Cabernet Shiraz, and the 2004 Signature ‘best of vintage each year since 1960’ Cabernet Shiraz blend. And from the kitchen, the ‘star turn’ or best dishes, were – in my incredibly impressed opinion – with the Viognier was the Idaho Rainbow Trout in a leek and radish broth with sundries tomato tapenade AND the Raw Maine Diver Scallops Tiradito : cucumber, Aji Amarillo, and red salt. With the Cigar, Strapper and Signature – definitely the Duck Wings all over again, as well as the Lockhart Quail with golden raisin rum butter and Anna Marys hot water cornbread. Let alone the local Ground Beef burgers that you can add anything to – from foie gras to ‘chicken bacon’! What’s chicken bacon? That would be marinated crispy deep fried chicken skin folks! Yep, it’s all very much the real heart stopping thing here. Next time we visit, the must do snack fir us is Swifts version of ‘poutine’ – that potato cheese and gravy French Canadian thing. In this establishment, they call it “HouseTater Tot (deep fried mash potato mini croquettes in Australia) Swiftine – smoked ham hock, Dos Lunas queso fresco (melted cheese sauce for the Australian and English readers) and Big Daddy gravy”! Definitely one for the late night supper sessions!
Then folks, just when you don’t think it can get any better…..it does! Enter the stage spotlight…..the dessert “Popcorn and a Movie” with our Yalumba FSW 8B Botrytis Viognier, and our slightly chilled Yalumba Antique Tawny fortified or ‘sticky’. Let me just say that this was my favorite dessert so far this year – worth making the trip to Swifts on it’s own. On the plate, in no particular order is – the house made candy bar using saltine crackers, peanut butter and chocolate, a gel texture glaze of reduced root beer soda (sarsaparilla to those at home), popcorn flavored house made gelati, and a garnish of crackerjacks (toffee glazed popcorn Australia) ……there you have “Popcorn and a Movie” – thanks very much. Did it go well with the honey, apricot and nougat of the Botrytis Viognier? Oh yes. And what about with the raisin, maple syrup, toffee, walnut brandy spirit and dried fig of the Antique Tawny? Ooooooh yesssss!
What a great way to introduce ourselves to our new distributors and part of the Austin trade. Great choice of venue Nick, our compliments to the designer, the chefs, and the absolutely flawless floor staff. We will be back!