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The Season's Most Ambitious Restaurant Opening Falls Flat

By Anthony Todd in Food on Oct 30, 2015 2:49PM

The New York Strip. Photo by Kailley Lindman.

Ever since Swift & Sons (originally called Armour & Swift before someone realized that those names were still trademarked) was announced, restaurant geeks have been breathlessly awaiting this new steakhouse from Boka Group and B. Hospitality. And with a kitchen helmed by Chris Pandel (The Bristol, Balena), pastries by Meg Galus (Nomi Kitchen, Boka) and a much-discussed design by AvroKo (the same designers of acclaimed Momotaro), it seemed that this was a restaurant that just couldn’t possibly be anything but perfect.

It just goes to show that the whole doesn’t always quite match up to the sum of its parts.

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The entrance to Swift & Sons. Photo by Anthony Tahlier.

Let’s start with some positives. There are, truly, lots of things to like about Swift & Sons. The design, a sort of steampunk supper club, is genuinely breathtaking, with dramatic curved ceilings, luxurious leather booths and the kind of tiny touches everywhere that show a real attention to detail. Kevin Boehm, co-owner of Boka group, puts it this way: “Our belief is that if, on the seventh time you come in, you notice something you never noticed before, it continues to be interesting to you and that’s a draw for you to come back.” He’s right—tiny details (be they books, light fixtures, wall patterns or old bottles) are everywhere.

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The beautiful dining room. Photo by Anthony Tahlier.

One particularly thoughtful touch: There are two back-to-back bars at Swift and Sons. A downstairs bar has a view of big screen TVs and an upstairs bar is darker, more intimate and borders on the dining room for those, like me, who hate blaring screens while they sip. Cocktails are perfect, and the bartenders are attentive and know exactly what they are pouring.

Caesar salad. Photo by Kailley Lindman.

There are some admirable dishes as well, like a Caesar with perfect whole tiny leaves of lettuce, delicately tossed with a spicy black pepper and garlic dressing (along with a touch of marinated tomatoes for an extra hit of flavor). That’s good, since, as Boehm reminds me, most people who come to a steakhouse will still order a Ceasar and a steak, no matter how creative the menu looks.

Leeks vinaigrette. Photo by Kailley Lindman.

Unfortunately (and surprisingly, given the bold flavors Pandel is known for) it feels like the kitchen has been told to keep their hands quietly in their laps and their seasonings safely on the rack. All of the other starters are oddly muted, almost timid. A masterfully cooked shrimp cocktail has a sauce so bland that, even when we mix the entire cup of horseradish in, neither my dining companion nor I can taste anything at all. Leeks vinaigrette, one of my all-time favorite dishes, has me gleeful when I see it on the menu, but the version at Swift & Sons is bland and tepid. The dish is usually almost offensively flavorful, swimming with capers, chopped egg and acid—but someone here didn’t get that memo.

Shrimp cocktail. Photo by Kailley Lindman.

Let’s get down to the real issue at Swift & Sons: The kitchen has a problem with its signature dish. With steaks ranging from $30 to $105, this is a place that needs to be serious about their steaks. Boehm and his partner Rob Katz tell me they spent an entire day tasting steak after steak just to determine what was the perfect beef. Theoretically perfect it may be, but when the New York strip (ordered medium rare) arrives at our table, the knife literally bounces off the charred-to-black exterior (with a light pinging sound) and dedicated sawing reveals a well-done interior. At the same time, steak frites (ordered as rare as can be) arrives both medium-grey and cold—the slices of compound butter on the top meant to flavor the dish are still rock solid and chilled five minutes later.

Steak frites. Photo by Kailley Lindman.

I’ve never sent a dish back to the kitchen in my life (I’m far too easily embarrassed) but my date has no such reservations—appropriate, given the $49 price tag on her destroyed beef. Even when it returns (along with a fresh steak frites for myself that was not asked for but was appreciated), it’s medium-grey and, she admits, still not very good. I watch her expending far too much effort to chew the expensive meat and wonder what’s going on in the kitchen.

It’s not just steak that is improperly cooked. Celery root agnolotti, a dish the servers push hard as a signature, is a warm, savory delight with earthy flavors—except that half of the pieces of pasta aren’t cooked at all. It’s early days yet, so I don’t want to judge Swift and Sons too harshly—but when I get the bill for the $100 worth of badly cooked steak, my charitable feelings waver slightly.

Ice cream sundae. Photo by Kailley Lindman.

On the other hand, there are real fireworks happening in Meg Galus’s pastry kitchen. The S&S cracker jack, a decadent combination of salted caramel, popcorn sherbert and a perfect sweet/salty peanut butter mousse, is a dessert I could eat until they had to roll me out of the restaurant, and her gilded take on an ice cream sundae (a steal at just $6) is probably the single best thing I ate all night.

Service is also a highlight. Servers are attentive, knowledgeable, and take the errors in stride. A salad is split without us having to ask for it, and there isn’t even a second’s hesitation when we send back the dish. Extra wine quickly comes to make up for the delay in bringing us new steaks.

The pieces are all there at Swift & Sons, and polite, attentive service in a genuinely beautiful room makes up for a multitude of sins. I'm pulling for them to improve, and I suspect (given the quality of the group's other restaurants) that they'll figure it out eventually. But until the savory kitchen can get its act together, Swift & Sons is going to have some real troubles.

Swift & Sons is located at 1000 W. Fulton Market.