There's nothing subtle about Sweetwater's Tropic Zone. From the moment you step into the color-splashed space--with its lightweight cantina tables, ceiling-mounted pink flamingos and echoing reggae--you know you're on Jimmy Buffet's turf.
Billed as "laid back tropical cuisine," Sweetwater's eclectic menu--which includes Cuban, Dominican, Hawaiian, Thai and Jamaican fare--is the United Nations of island grub. When done right--like the curried avocado and jasmine rice ($14)--these varied coastal influences dance in step, rich curried coconut-milk, diced tomatoes and cilantro swaying to a spicy, peanut-y beat. When done wrong--like the dry, gingerbread-ish buttermilk cornbread ($2.25)--it's a scratched record. On a recent visit to Sweetwater's, I opted to sit in the upstairs dining area. Lit by the warm glow of Christmas lights, I watched the winter wind claw at the windows and relished the effervescent ping of champagne bubbles as they slid down my throat ($4.50, Segura Viudas cava mini bottle). At that moment, the joint's tropical theme was a welcome escape.
My date and I started things off with a half-dozen oysters, which our server let us split half Kumamoto and half Hunter Point ($10). The oysters were a refreshing indulgence, garnished with a spray of lemon and both a ginger-shallot and mango-lemon mignonette. I favored the finely diced mango, which played off the bivalves' inherent sweetness without distracting from their sea-netted freshness.
After recalling how filling the curried avocado dish had been on a previous visit, my date and I opted to split our entree, the pineapple curry seafood stew ($20), and beef it up with a couple of sides. The stew arrived looking like a musical number from Little Mermaid--singing clams and mussels perched atop a bed of tap-dancing, tails-on shrimp. The dish's flavor--sweet and creamy with a hint of spice--lived up to the presentation. Spooned over a mound of moist rice with crunchy slivers of grilled coconut, it was heavenly. But the same can't be said for the sides. The red peas and rice ($3.50), cooked in coconut milk and spices, was an unsightly and under-whelming mush, while the mashed potato, plantain and yam "smash" ($3.75) could've used a healthy dash of salt and some spicy zing.
Surveying the damage we'd done--piles of empty clam, mussel and shrimp shells--my date and I agreed that, though our culinary experiences at Sweetwater's have been overwhelmingly enjoyable, it's the context that gives us pause. With prices comparable to other high-end downtown establishments and the atmosphere of a Joe's Crab Shack, it's a rare mood that would entice me into Sweetwater's over other nearby options. On the other hand, the fresh oysters and inexpensive champagne will undoubtably turn me into a happy hour regular.
--Tara Morgan thinks the time has come to talk of many things.