Your daily bread

Sweetwater Restaurant & Bar

5641 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95819

(916) 731-8857

If you’ve ever been to San Francisco’s stylish and perennially crowded Zuni Café, or even just read about it, you’ve probably heard about the roast chicken. It’s succulent and delicious—made to serve two—with a generous portion of warm bread salad with currants and pine nuts. Everyone, myself included, writes (not to say raves) about it.

I’m not reviewing Zuni, but I’ve dreamt about that dish. I’m telling you so you’ll understand why I had to order the roast lamb at Sweetwater, the new restaurant in the venerable Shakey’s Pizza building at the far end of J Street (now unrecognizably redecorated for the better). It may have been lamb, not chicken, but it came with warm bread salad with currants and pine nuts. How could I resist?

Even before the lamb arrived with its mound of bread salad, I began to suspect that the chef at Sweetwater might have a way with bread. The otherwise unremarkable slices that arrived at our table to start were brushed with a garlic-scented oil or butter (it was hard to tell).

The best thing about the appetizer called “Big Easy Shrimp” was definitely the slice of just-charred grilled bread for sopping up the sauce. Not that the sauce was bad. I’ve had that style of shrimp at a place that’s famous for it in New Orleans. There, the sauce was unctuously thick, brown with Worcestershire sauce and spicy with black pepper. At Sweetwater, the thinner, tangy, reddish sauce was yummy enough, but the shrimp weren’t quite as plump and tender as they could have been. That grilled bread, though, was awfully good.

We also tried a very different appetizer, the Dungeness crab spring rolls. We ordered them in place of an intriguing-sounding appetizer of deviled figs with goat cheese and prosciutto. The server apologetically explained that figs had gone out of season and that the chef would change the seasonal menu soon.

The spring rolls were fresh and light, not fried. Filled with flavorful herbs; crunchy lettuce; and pink, crisp shreds of what looked like watermelon radish, the rolls were served with a tart dipping sauce that contained plenty of fish sauce. The first bite prompted me to wonder where the crab was, but a thick hunk of it was nestled in each roll. Although the flavors of the rolls were good, the ribs of lettuce overpowered the delicate texture of the crab in a couple of them. Also, the rice-paper wrappers were a bit dried out and tough, making me wonder if they had been made too far in advance.

A simple salad of butter lettuce with caramelized walnuts, diced apple, blue cheese and an excellent cider-vinegar dressing was particularly well-executed. This rendition of a classic combination had balanced flavor and just the right amount of tangy, peppery dressing.

The entrees arrived looking similar but tasting very different. My friend ordered grilled pork tenderloin. The moist, tender, slightly rosy slices were arranged over a mound of unusual pumpkin gratin—with plenty of cheese flavor—and topped with sautéed spinach. Squiggles of pomegranate molasses decorated the plate, a touch I generally find a bit irritating. If a sauce’s flavors are important enough to include in the dish, restaurants ought to give you enough of it to taste properly.

My lamb also featured slices of meat architecturally adorning the accompaniment—in this case, the much-anticipated bread salad, which I loved. It was quite different from the Zuni article: redolent of herbs, with carrot and celery as well as the currants and pine nuts. The bread pieces had a range of textures, from those soaked in flavorful juices (and, I suspect, more butter than I should eat in a month) to those with crisply toasted edges. It tasted like Thanksgiving stuffing that had come into money, moved uptown and hired itself a really good personal stylist. And it went beautifully with the nicely cooked, pink, flavorful slices of lamb.

The dessert menu, like the dinner menu, offered creatively tweaked versions of modern American classics, including a banana bread pudding with eggnog sauce. I asked whether there were raw eggs in the sauce, and the server said that it was made with eggnog from the carton—something I’d suspect the kitchen would rather he not share. It didn’t much matter, as the sauce showed up only in more edge-of-plate squiggles, along with a bit of caramel. The giant wedge of cinnamony bread pudding, shot through with gooey banana and crispy at the edges, provided further evidence of the kitchen’s way with bread.

This comforting, warming food—perfect for the season—is matched by Sweetwater’s sleekly modern yet homey décor. We had a table by the fire, and with holiday decorations up, and a buzzing, fun vibe in the air, Sweetwater was a perfect refuge on a cold night. It’s a bit mazelike getting in—traffic patterns to drive there can be baffling, and there are two doors to the bar out front as well the main door to the restaurant in back—but once you’re there, throw low-carb caution to the winds and enjoy.