At SWeL the Dining Is Just Fine

Try as it might, the newcomer fails to stand out from the bustling Fremont crowd.

Fremont has had a spate of notable restaurant openings recently, including two from the Heavy Restaurant Group (Pablo y Pablo and Thackeray). They join older favorites like Eve, Le Petit Cochon, and Revel, and are helping give the neighborhood more dining credibility. Another contender, SWeL (3417 Evanston Ave N #104, 458-9815), which opened in the former Sixgill bar space in the Saturn building, is looking to do the same.

The lively atmosphere and convivial service was a good start to a Friday evening meal, but the décor confused me. It is by no means unattractive, but seems to have no real rhyme or reason. There are some interesting aspects to it, such as raised wooden banquettes that require a step up, and two secluded tables shrouded with drapes. But beyond that, it looks like someone went wild at West Elm and then just threw everything up on the walls willy-nilly—silver and gold mirrors, windows, frames, shelves for candles, “om” signage, white chandeliers. It seems to strive to look antique or vintage, but fails. The only element I really liked were light fixtures wrapped in a straw-like material that makes them appear to be floating birds’ nests.

The menu consists of a half dozen pizzas (flatbread style) in small and large sizes, as well as appetizers, salads, and entrees. We tried the pizza with Italian sausage, caramelized onions, and mushrooms, and were underwhelmed. The main problem: woefully undersalted.

The appetizers were more successful. My favorite among them (and maybe my favorite dish of the night) was the oven-fired bay scallops in a spicy lime mornay sauce and regianitto. It comes out looking like a pie topped with cheese, or a bowl of onion soup with its thick cheesy crust. When you pierce the crackly exterior, it gives way to an oozy filling of a rich mornay (a béchamel sauce with, in this case, regianitto–an Argentinean sheep’s milk cheese) in which reside tiny, sweet bay scallops, somehow made all the more appealing with the addition of tangy lime. I think of it as a kind of scallop fondue. It has all the hallmarks of comfort food, but is raised to another level because of the scallops and the play of flavors. The calamari sautéed in garlic basil pesto with pine nuts, served on arugula, was quite nice, if not as inventive or memorable, the pieces of calamari well-sized and seasoned.

Salads, some of which also come in small and large portions, were hit and miss. Their house Caesar has a garlic-forward dressing that I enjoyed, but the fennel salad was an oddly-proportioned plate of huge leaves of bib lettuce (which I wished they’d chopped up a bit), on which lay small chunks of mozzarella, grape tomatoes, and fennel, dressed with a miso vinaigrette. The mozzarella wasn’t particularly flavorful, and the mild lettuce felt unadorned. It was just a rather bland affair.

Entrees, too, were inconsistent—and expensive. Their rigatoni with Italian sausage, marinara sauce and cream was terribly sweet and the sauce looked like a whole lot of tomato paste. I almost wondered if they’d added some canned sauce to it. There was a bit of sausage, but the dish could have used more. This was not a $17 pasta dish. The carne asada skirt steak was cooked perfectly, medium-rare and topped with a vibrant chimichurri sauce that wasn’t too oily. The oven-leeks were a nice side bite, as was the half-piece of roasted corn on the cob. Still, $29 for skirt steak felt a little high.

The French-cut pork chop came out handsomely poised above a creamy marsala wine sauce with a rustic pile of roughly-mashed Yukon gold potatoes. However, when we cut into it, we found an undercooked center. An overcooked pork chop is always a disappointment, and I definitely lean towards pinker flesh (particularly since trichinosis has been largely eradicated), but rare pork just doesn’t taste nice the way rare beef does. We sent it back. The server returned to tell us they were making us a brand new one, and offered some bread while we waited. When the new chop came out, it was still oddly on the very medium rare side in the center, but we let it go and ate. It was delightfully juicy, and the potatoes were full-flavored and delicious, both of which were made indulgent with the marsala sauce.

Ultimately, SWeL was fine, maybe a tad more than fine. But compared to much of its Fremont brethren, it misses the mark. Still, you could do a lot worse, and if it’s in your neck of the woods, you could probably find enough reasons to stop in—even if it’s just for a cocktail at the bar. Or for those addictive cheesy bay scallops.