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It's the substance that counts at the revamped Sweetwater Restaurant.

More than Meets the Eye


From the outside, there's little about Sweetwater Restaurant that would make you want to stop in and grab dinner. It's painted black and blue. You can't see in the windows. The blinds are drawn on the locked front door (the entrance is on the side), and the funky, hand-painted signs promise, plainly, "Music," Food," "Lounge."

Overall, it gives the impression of being just another pub-grub and cover-charge joint for the student set. And it was, just six short months ago. But with the recent addition of Andrew Manning in the kitchen (La Petite France, Acacia, Amici) the substance no longer matches the packaging.

Manning's menu has lifted Sweetwater out of the homey doldrums of grilled chicken breast and meatloaf by turning to a creative, carefully executed blend of classic ingredients brought into the contemporary vulgate of casual dining, made elegant by his skill with sauces.

From the current menu, his second of the winter season, Manning offers richly flavored sauces designed to give warmth in the waning winter months. Grainy mustard, veal stock reduction, celeriac purée, and blood orange moderated by the presence of vanilla bean are applied in a carefully restrained manner to a variety of skillfully prepared meats, fish and game. Portions also are well considered to keep you from getting bored in the middle of a bumper-to-bumper meal.

Though you'll be faced with a menu of temptations and two chalkboards of specials, do not overlook the duck liver foie gras appetizer served with blood oranges and pears in a vanilla bean/blood orange sauce ($9.95). This marvelous sauce reappears as a glaze on the crispy roast duck entree. To contrast with the velvety foie gras, we ordered a plateful of fresh littleneck clams and mussels steamed in an applewood-smoked bacon, garlic and chive court bouillon ($9.50).

Competing appetizers ($7-$10) include smoked salmon with a goat cheese and rosemary tart with arugula cream, and confit of duck with rosemary roasted Fuji apples. Seared rabbit liver with oyster mushrooms, brown butter and sage, veal sweetbreads with mushrooms and a celery ragout, and braised veal cheek were offered as specials on the night we visited.

There is also a refreshing selection of winter salads ($6) of shaved fennel, roasted beets and celeriac with creative dressings like pumpkin-seed vinaigrette and Roquefort cream.

These introductions alone are enough, and stopping there would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do to help keep the cost of dinner for two under $60 — if you skipped dessert and stopped at one glass of wine.

But you'd be missing out, because Manning's entrees ($17-$20) give a complete picture of his approach to the kitchen and provide the dot at the bottom of the exclamation point.

The specials, together with the main menu, offer luxurious entrees skillfully prepped and artfully plated. Braised rabbit with potato gnocchi is accented with a grainy mustard sauce; roasted rack of lamb with white truffle and chive mashed potatoes boasts a veal-stock reduction with thyme and garlic; seared grouper with garlic polenta is served with mustard sauce with shiitake mushrooms.

We ordered the sea bass in a celeriac purée with chives and butter (which lacked any oiliness), and the roast veal tenderloin with mustard sauce, which comes topped with sweetbreads and applewood-smoked bacon stacked on top of garlic mashed potatoes.

By 6:30 p.m. the pre-ballet crowd had arrived, and by 7:30 the place was full and the sea bass 86'd. The crowd slowed down the otherwise calm, collected and attentive servers — one the owner — who had a full night of reservations ahead of them and still had to bring us our dessert, a must, especially if they're offering the candied apple tart or the Bavarian white chocolate ($5-$6).

With Manning recently returned from two weeks in Italy on a creative dining and idea-gathering tour, the spring menus should be a

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