Sweetwater Bar and Grill

Vincent Agro displays one of many rare bourbons at Sweetwater Bar and Grill in Boynton Beach. The venue specializes in pre-Prohibition-era cocktails and makes from scratch most of the mixers and infusions used in its drinks. (Jim Rassol, Sun Sentinel / June 28, 2012)

three half stars

After studying the menu of Sweetwater Bar and Grill, with its many pages devoted to dozens of small-production flavored gins, rums, tequilas, single-malt scotches, bourbons and beers — not to mention a custom cocktail list that reads like an alcohol-induced hallucination ("Death and Taxes," "Mexican Cockfight," "Spanish Inquisition") — you might conclude that this is primarily a drinking establishment that happens to serve some bar fare on the side for appearances' sake. After all, the food section barely fills one page.

You would be wrong on several counts. Sweetwater is not just a bar, but as Amber, our well-informed server, explained in a lengthy discourse, one that emphasizes house-made flavorings, infusions, additives, locally produced fruits and vegetables, and craft liquors and beers produced by small distilleries and brewers. You would also be shortchanging yourself regarding the victuals — for the same philosophy prevails in the bill of fare, which offers high-quality and imaginative dishes that any restaurant would be proud to serve.

As for atmosphere, the postage-stamp-size bar and grill isn't just a place where people randomly gather. Its cozy comfort manages to generate that spark that turns a roomful of strangers into a cohesive group all having a great time together. There are small conversational areas with sofas, a high-topped trestle table in the center, an enormous and dramatic bar with multiple layers of bottles, and small, intimate tables. This could easily be a neighborhood bar in any city in the North, except that its solid and liquid offerings occupy a much-higher plane of quality.


Pictures: Hollywood Beach Broadwalk

We brought along an intrepid band of tasters willing to sacrifice their sobriety for the greater good and to plow their way through as many of the specialty cocktails as possible. In general, we discovered that these drinks were not just gimmicky beverages, but carefully thought-out concoctions, each of which expressed a character Amber was happy to recommend for the appropriate context. Examples were "Death and Taxes" ($10), composed of rooibos-tea-infused gin, elderflower, lemon and Fever-Tree tonic — a crisp, refreshing aperitif to sip while studying the menu.

The "Morphine Drip" ($10), an amalgam of two kinds of rum, fresh orange, pineapple, Coco Lopez and a lot of nutmeg, was characterized by our specialists variously as a "girly drink," "a Christmas drink" and "a good one to pass out by the pool with." Amber suggested the "Bacon Old Fashion" ($12) for after dinner. This potion had a smoky flavor thanks to the bacon-infused Temptation bourbon, maple rye, maple syrup, bitters and orange zest. "Breakfast at Tiffany's" ($10) had a slice of cucumber in it and was dubbed a "spa drink" (by this time, our jury had ceased caring about the ingredients). All the drinks sported a single enormous ice cube floating in the center.

To help absorb all the liquor, nothing is more effective than the rich, heavy spinach and artichoke dip ($10), topped with a crust of Asiago cheese and served with bias-cut French baguette. Once you've tasted this dish, you just can't quit (though you know you can any time you want to). Another great sharing appetizer is the charcuterie plate ($20), served on a wooden cutting board with several artisanal cheeses (including a creamy smoked Gouda), aged salami, prosciutto, some olives, and an inexplicable pot of Tupelo honey. A bread accompaniment might have been helpful.

Main courses of note were the Cedarville skirt steak ($21), also served on a board, possessing an incredible tenderness and richness of marinated flavor, topped with two huge onion rings and piled onto smashed potatoes (red skin included) with side schmears of garlicky chimichurri sauce. Another standout was the Tahitian tuna tartare (an excellent value at $16), which arrived as a layered molded cylinder of raw yellowfin tuna, crushed avocado, cucumber, tomato and fresh crab with a wasabi sauce. It was cool, fresh, light and delectable. In all cases, an enormous amount of thought had been put into artful presentation.

Our conclusion was that, even though Sweetwater has the feel of a local bar, it's worth traveling the distance from anywhere in South Florida to downtown Boynton Beach to visit. It's just that good. And you'll probably find yourself coming back to sample what you missed the first time around.

Sweetwater Bar and Grill

1507 S. Federal Highway, Boynton Beach

561-509-9277, Sweetwater33.com

Cuisine: Eclectic

Cost: Moderate

Hours: Dinner nightly

Reservations: Not accepted

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full service

Sound level: Can be loud

Outside smoking: Yes

For kids: Nothing