Young and handsome servers roll up their sleeves, revealing bulky wristwatches that glow yellow and blue. They shout over rock music turned just a little too loud and rave about cocktails infused with fresh chilies and herbs. They arrive at your table carrying smoked spare ribs piled like Jenga blocks on a wooden cutting board. And then, in a low tone, they warn you about the bacon. At Swine Southern Table & Bar, it's employed as if it were salt.
Swine belongs to John Kunkel, a shrewd businessman who sold his fast-casual chain Lime Fresh Mexican Grill to Ruby Tuesday for a handsome sum last year. He and his crew, called 50 Eggs, are behind Yardbird Southern Table & Bar and Khong River House -- two South Beach spots that exemplify the saying "with it." Located in a boutique-spangled strip on Ponce de Leon Boulevard, Swine is a pork-themed place that mimics Yardbird's chicken fare.
Kunkel's kitchens have range. They turn out fried chicken, crawfish pots, boat noodles, and duck curry. They vary like James Bond movies. Settings change, and so do names. Character, however, remains the same: casual, light-hearted, and original places that are also smart.
Elegant traditions would be out of place at Swine. The restaurant doesn't take reservations, and waits can get awfully long. But the waitstaff makes up for it. They shoot you a text when your table is ready. Can't find the restroom? Ask the curly-haired, bubbly
hostess. "I'll show ya," she said on a recent busy Friday night before escorting me there.
The rowdy din of idling patrons adds to the restaurant's laid-back buzz. Swine's setting is leisurely and cavernous; it sits inside a lofted two-story space that's lined with barn-wood walls and shelves holding colorful pickling jars. On the first floor, a massive lighted marquee reads, "Run Pig Run." A painting of a hog says, "What bacon and whiskey don't cure, there ain't no cure for." Swine is not only playful but also apparently very wise.
Which is true, too, of executive chef Phil Bryant, who favors large plates and forgoes traditional formulas. Bryant's cooking lacks carbohydrate, vegetable, and protein templates. It does, however, frequently toy with pork. A glutton's dream, his macaroni and cheese combines pig's tail-shaped noodles melted with bacon and crowned with a crisp herb crust. For those seeking greens, there are Brussels sprouts. They are deep-fried and swim in bacon vinaigrette.
Pastry chef Max Santiago follows the kitchen's lead. His sticky buns with maple-bourbon toffee syrup cradle sweet potato and marshmallow fluff ice cream. Santiago jewels the pastry with a pecan butter quenelle and candied smoked bacon. Nothing about Swine encourages restraint. Enjoy this dessert paired with a drink.
Devised by mixologist Robert Ferrara, cocktails here are barrel-aged, fussy things that sum up today's vogue. Beverages splash muddled berries and aromatic herbs with fresh juices. Even they stay true to the restaurant's name. The Swine old-fashioned mixes bacon-washed Old Overholt rye whiskey with maple syrup and house-made bitters.
Sure, there is more to Swine than bacon. Malabar spinach is quickly wilted in a skillet and tossed with red onions, apples, and cheese-stuffed pimientos, all of it sloshed in boiled peanut vinaigrette. In a fresh salad, torn kale is dressed in cider vinegar and strewn with white cheddar cheese, crisp apples, cornbread croutons, and raisins soaked in moonshine. The kale leaves are cut too large, proving cumbersome. But that is the only clumsy thing about Swine.
The rest is faultless. Swine's shrimp and grits come with spiced Florida crustaceans and bits of crisp Virginia ham drowning in a tomato gravy so delicious it merits being sold as a drink. A chubby pork loin, brined in cider and grilled on a wood-burning griddle, rests on a bed of brown-buttered sweet potato mousse. Bourbon-onion jus, smoked pecan praline, and sautéed bitter greens add to the unworldly dish -- a platter so balanced you might choose loin over fattier shoulder or ribs on a subsequent visit. Or, more likely, you might order all three. Don't be bashful.
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Indeed, Swine Southern Table & Wine knows exactly what you want. Not chicharrones or whole hogs roasted underground, but bacon in your dessert and pork in your drink.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.