Café Sweetwater Is Much More Than Just A Popular Watering Hole.
By Rebecca Cook
FOR THE BETTER half of the last decade, I've known Café Sweetwater more as a happening place to socialize with friends after work and listen to smoky jazz after hours. I guess I was aware there was a restaurant, but since that seldom was my reason for being there, I tended to forget about it.
The savory aromas emanating from the kitchen snagged my attention from time to time, but usually I was far too distracted by the conversation and the tunes to spend much time contemplating Sweetwater's cuisine. Besides which, just about any time I'd catch a good whiff of something cooking, someone nearby would light up the smelly puking habit, and the olfactory opportunity would dissipate. My curiosity had been sufficiently piqued, however, and I resolved to go back for dinner some day. Shame on me that it took so long.
The restaurant at Café Sweetwater is no mere pretense. I'm sure several of us have had the experience of dining in bars that served only a few tasteless items meant ostensibly to soak up the alcohol, not titillate the taste buds. But Café Sweetwater aspires to something far loftier, and has produced a menu shimmering with delectable possibilities. It would be a cruel waste to dine here and be too inebriated to appreciate the nuances the menu offers.
The somewhat surrealistic Miami Vice coral and teal design scheme notwithstanding, Sweetwater's space is quite inviting. The tiered, multi-room dining area is airy and contemporary, and allows some diners the option of viewing the quirky foot traffic passing along Fourth Avenue. For those who forego the musical entertainment in the adjacent bar, this is a viable alternative for a lively dinner show.
Both lunch and dinner are semi-formal affairs, making Sweetwater an ideal locale for both business gatherings and first dates. The menus for both meals are essentially the same, with more sandwiches offered at noon and many featured specials making an appearance only after the sun sets.
We abandoned the notion of eating lightly for lunch as soon as we read the comprehensive menu, which includes pasta, seafood, chicken and crepes as well as plenty of soup, sandwich and salad options. Too hungry that day to be fully discriminating, we indulged in two of our all-time favorite foods: pasta and steamed mussels.
Mussels are most often featured only as an appetizer, but Sweetwater places them smack dab in the middle of their lunch offerings for mollusk aficionados. Large, green-lip mussels swimming in a large bowl along with a broth of Chardonnay, butter, garlic, parsley, shallots and finely chopped tomato were tender but firm and replete with flavor. Along with a basket of Sweetwater's warm, crusty French bread, this was a dreamy midday repast.
The pasta primavera, a dish usually served with a variety of seasonal vegetables, is here additionally mixed with strips of grilled chicken breast, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and a parmesan cheese sauce.
Matchstick zucchini, diced carrot, chopped red onion and sautéed, sliced mushrooms float through the mix in an aesthetic array of color, matched by a corresponding loveliness in flavor. Inferior cream sauces can coagulate soon after reaching the table, but in this case the sauce remained simultaneously smooth and delightfully cheesy. The chicken and tomatoes contributed a vague smoky taste, while the vegetables were cooked to a satisfying tender-crisp. The result was exquisite.
A wonderful selection of appetizers headline the dinner menu, any or all of which would be fabulous happy hour fare. We whetted our appetites with a spicy starter of blackened sea scallops atop a bed of dark green lettuce, slivered carrot and red cabbage, with a dusting of crumbled blue cheese and a zesty honey-jalapeño dressing. The result was more like a salad than we'd anticipated; but the odd assemblage of ingredients worked to scrumptious advantage. The heat of the blackened spices and jalapeño meshed incredibly well with the sweetness of the dressing and the tangy sharpness of the cheese.
Sweetwater's dinner is notable for the abundance of seafood and chicken featured, as well as the scarcity of other meat items. True, one can order the pepper filet mignon (the lone beef offering) or the sautéed mustard pork medallions, but only at the peril of missing out on what the restaurant does best. Whatever the occasion, don't overlook the day's specials, which feature primarily fresh seafood entrees given a royal and innovative treatment.
We were dazzled one night by a fresh red snapper wrapped decorously in a green banana leaf, along with a relish of lime, cilantro, onion and chopped tomato. The flesh of the fish was delicate and flaky, with a gentle suggestion of sweetness courtesy of the restrained flavors of the herb and vegetable. A wedge of luscious polenta and a tower of rice accompanied the fish, giving the whole platter a distinctive, photogenic appeal.
Less successful was the shrimp provençal, another featured special that day. About a half-dozen prawns were sautéed in a heavy sauce of tomato, garlic and olive oil, with a liberal dash of thyme. A serving of orzo towered over the crustaceans from the center of the plate, and was itself topped by a nest of crisp, shoestring potatoes crowned with a lone, elevated shrimp. Again, the effect was extremely picturesque, but the moment was spoiled somewhat when the shrimp toppled from its perch just as it was placed before me, splattering oily red spots all over the front of my (horrors!) white blouse.
All might have been forgiven had the dish been as wonderful as the snapper across the table; alas, this was not the case. The shrimp were slightly tough and the sauce was too dark, unctuous and sodium-packed (much like a tinned beef broth) to pass for an authentic provençal preparation.
A dessert tray is presented after each meal at Café Sweetwater, and the selections cover the typical range of possibilities: fruit tarts, chocolate mousses, crème caramels and an assortment of cakes and confections.
After careful consideration, we selected a layered white-and-dark chocolate mousse and an espresso-laced tiramisu for our grand finale.
The tiered mousse was quite satisfactory: creamy, full-bodied
and chock-full of dense chocolate flavor. But the tiramisu was
a bit of a disappointment, its layers of ladyfingers a tad on
the dry side, the filling too scarce and the whole serving infused
with a disconcerting coconut character.
Small snafus (and dry-cleaning bills) aside, Sweetwater is a legitimate presence on the local dining scene. Whether you're into imbibing, feasting or people-watching, you'll find what you're looking for here.
Café Sweetwater. 340 E. Sixth St. 622-6464. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sundays. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, DC, checks. Menu items: $2.95-$15.95.
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