So many amateurs get into the restaurant business. They think: I've been eating out my whole life. What is there to know? You make food, you serve food, you clean up afterward, right? And these people, by and large, fail.
It's a joy to watch real professionals embark on a new venture, to see them select a location that makes sense and a concept that seems fresh and relevant, then build out and staff up with methodical, even maniacal, attention to detail.
This is true of On Swann, which opened last month after many construction delays in Hyde Park Village (which, in turn, is still in the throes of an enormously disruptive re-sidewalking project). Cafe Ponte's Chris Ponte and his wife Michelle Ponte joined forces with former Outback Steakhouse senior vice president Trudy Cooper and former Bonefish Grill president John Cooper.
The Coopers, it seems, couldn't stay retired. I'm sure it was one of those ongoing marital conversations: If you could open an independent restaurant, what would it look like? What would it serve?
Even in its first few weeks, On Swann seems suavely assured, the servers equipped with grace and deep menu knowledge. It can be loud as the dickens, but it still never seems chaotic, dishes and cocktails paced effectively and an ongoing deluge of customers routed appropriately.
Decor is absolutely charming, eclectic in the best sense, with long communal tables and little marble-topped rounds, rustic wood floors and bold Spanish tile in the bar area. (The Coopers designed it themselves through a tile company in California — just drag and drop online.) Open shelving in the bar was welded locally and boldly spray-painted, the overall effect, especially with a funky tilted mirror behind it, at once edgy and nostalgic. A back wall is painted in a restful blue-gray but edged in an electric color called arsenic for sizzle.
So, love the decor. But there are other design decisions that elevate On Swann. First, servers wear crisp white or blue shirts with long gray aprons: smart and professional, but then they are encouraged to express their individuality, so you're apt to see funky hair colors, bold lipsticks and boho fillips. And the serving pieces have been thought through for maximum visual appeal: Great use is made of wide planks of wood, roasted oysters ($13) come in a stunning long wooden bowl, a tomato and compressed watermelon salad ($8) arrives in a skinny white ceramic boat.
Chris Ponte is tapping his foot right now. What about the food, Reiley? Enough with the serving pieces. On Swann, which serves dinner only, feels contemporary without cliches. Yes, there is a kale salad ($8), with quinoa, no less, but the grassy shreds of kale are tamed by bits of bacon, corn, drifts of ricotta salata, leaves of Brussels sprout and a handful of sweet, chewy dried cherries, all in a balanced and judiciously applied dressing. The menu draws broadly from exotic parts of the globe — the roasted oysters get a fragrant sambal butter and scallops' sweetness is enhanced with a little curry flavor — but there are a number of items that feel squarely Italian.
The dishes in that last category were not generally my favorite, but they were solid. Breaded risotto balls ($5) were gooey-centered and crisp-edged but not fascinating, and a short rib gemelli ($17) lost me a bit because the short rib wasn't plushly falling apart it ribbons; its hunks had to be chopped to incorporate into the pasta, the whole thing a bit salty. (The kitchen does sometimes have a heavy hand with the salt.)
I was more smitten by a great roundup of craft cocktails, including a couple of knockout house barrel-aged classics (a Manhattan and a coffee-inflected Old Fashioned), and some dishes that seemed squarely American, even homages to American regional dishes. There's the nod to Nashville's hot chicken, On Swann's version like really excellent chicken fingers served with a romesco/aioli mashup ($8), and a spin on fried green tomatoes that doubles down with pimento cheese, Nueske bacon and the sweet juxtaposition of roasted tomato jam ($8).
And the dishes I will zip back for long after this review has run? Maybe I'll start with "The Farm" cheese and charcuterie board ($32; it's a whopper, so bring friends) mostly because it features so many fun accoutrements and housemade pickles, and then I'll plow through the skillet of roasted cauliflower with its cap of crisp bread crumbs, golden raisins and curls of basil, all of it obscured somewhat by the unblinking eye of a softly fried egg ($8).
Hip but not trendy, On Swann seems to appeal to a broad audience: gaggles of moms kid-free for the night, Palma Ceia scions and their bow-tied elders, millennials ambivalent about still getting carded. And with small plates and sharables (don't you dare try eating the chicken entree, the ribeye and the pork chop by yourself), it's the kind of restaurant that doesn't feel like a splurge despite the upscale setting. The Pontes and the Coopers have a hit on their hands, which happens sometimes when professionals put their heads together.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.