Dining at On Swann is pure pleasure. I love the casual-chic touches, many of them incorporating repurposed materials, at the new Hyde Park space. And chef Chris Ponte's street cred as a culinary wizard (long established at Cafe Ponte, his Clearwater flagship) is on display as his crackerjack team churns out arrestingly delicious food from the open kitchen.
But what is most notable throughout the evening is the attention of the impeccably well-trained service staff.
I rarely dwell on service because the column space is tight and food is my main focus; in most cases, the waitstaff is fine and does a professional job. However, when servers descend as a well-trained militia and know every detail of every ingredient for every dish, you can't help but take notice. While our server handles all the niceties of attentive dining, it's unusual to face such a charm offensive. When, in a relaxed and caring manner, you viscerally feel that this person wants nothing more in the world than to be at your table, to assure your enjoyment, for every single moment in your presence, it adds real enjoyment value.
What emerges from our casual banter is the extensive interview process that was used to assemble staff and the rigorous training and testing prior to opening the restaurant's doors. Knowledge spews forth from our server as my table asks about the menu and the wine list. No bit of esoterica is left unmined.
Of course, none of this matters if the food is lacking. Quite the contrary. You'll see elsewhere in this Food Issue a list of memorable tastes from my adventures over the past year. Well, as my new season begins, we've got a grand slam right off the bat. On Swann's menu begins with "nibbles" — just a few little somethings to whet your appetite.
We land on foie gras "butter" with fig jam and truffle financiers. Foie gras seems to have a hard time staying on Tampa Bay menus, and that's a shame. It's a French gastronomic giant, along with truffles and caviar. The truffle-tinged financiers in this dish are actually dense mini-muffins made with ground almonds and brown butter, what the French call beurre noisette. They are the perfect vehicle for the glass crock of foie spread topped with a thin layer of sweet figs.
Wow, just wow. (Next time, I'm not sharing.)
The starters, too, are terrific. How about lush spicy carrot soup with red lentils, radishes and garnishes of buttermilk cream dotted with mint-pea pesto? Or a fig tart's splendid crust full of great char leopard spots, finished with the wonderful combination of caramelized onions, bits of Gorgonzola, some wafer-thin prosciutto, creamy mascarpone, and a center pyramid of slightly bitter frisée balanced by port-balsamic reduction? It's an intoxicating symphony of flavors.
Perhaps you crave dense and juicy lamb meatballs with minted ricotta and tomato sauce that gains sweetness from the addition of dates — all served atop creamy Anson Mills grits, plus the crunch of garlic crostini. Each dish is elevated by flavors you don't anticipate.
The entrees are also good, if not so wildly seductive. Soft and pillowy gnocchi made with lemon-herb ricotta are lighter than the potato variety. They have plenty of flavor with garlic, and the aforementioned tomato-date sauce touched with surprising dashes of bright pesto to ignite your taste buds.
Short rib ragu is flavored with traditional mirepoix (the holy trinity of celery, carrots and onion) and wild mushrooms. There's loads of taste, but few pieces of meat. This is essentially a coated pasta dish of gemelli (an S-shaped pasta that resembles extra-long, twisted macaroni twins). The kitchen adds some texture and brightness with a citrus pine nut crumb topping. It's very tasty despite a bland countenance.
One of the taste stars is also a visual beauty. Soft risotto made from perfumed jasmine rice (rather than the classic arborio) is dotted with bright green peas, oblique slices of tangy chorizo and surrounded by a striking yellow nage, a sauce reduction made from poaching broth flavored with basil, orange and saffron. This is all topped by a firm, impeccably seared white fillet of cobia, circled by tiny clams resembling baby birds eager to be fed.
Entrees include a huge 27-ounce ribeye served on a platter fashioned from a tree "slice" that co-owner Trudy Cooper imagined and salvaged from her brother's backyard in Kentucky. Little touches like these abound and reflect the charm of the entire operation.
The desserts are fresh, with pure flavors. Local blueberry cobbler is wisely accompanied by lemon and vanilla bean gelato, pairing perfectly to highlight the fruit with a bright hit of citrus that makes it sing. And the flourless chocolate ganache cake is surprisingly soft and lush, with chunky orange relish providing a combo that delights. Though these are simple, they're full of flavor.
On Swann embraces contemporary American cuisine that's thoughtfully sourced (which is not always local) and features Ponte's flair for seasonal menus. Luckily for us, historic Hyde Park Village may never be the same.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.