What happens when a vegetarian, two avowedly healthy eaters and a food critic walk into Sweeney’s, the three-month-old bistro on Johns Island? They notice there’s an awful lot of pork on the menu.
Pig meat is a given in the South, of course, but Sweeney’s stops just short of swatting its guests with a country ham. Four of the six sandwiches are ornamented with pork, including a grilled chicken sandwich crisscrossed with bacon, a cheeseburger finished with bacon strips and a grilled cheese plumped with pork terrine.
Bacon shows up in places where customers might conceivably crave it, such as in a cheese-sauced penne with peas, and in places where it doesn’t belong: Propriety doesn’t demand wrapping a naked filet in bacon. A mild filet doesn’t stand a chance against the smoky flavors of cured pork.
Maybe I went to Sweeney’s with the wrong crowd. But the bacon ornamentation seemed to show up a bigger problem with Sweeney’s: The restaurant lacks both a distinct point of view and the confidence it needs to produce really interesting plates that could justify the prices charged for them.
Sweeney’s isn’t hopeless. You’re not likely to find yourself shoving aside unfinished plates, but it can’t make up for the general dullness of its food and decor by embellishing everything with bacon.
The tidy dining room at Sweeney’s is, above all, tasteful. Glossed caramel-brown wooden tables with darker wooden chairs are amply spaced throughout the burgundy-walled room; a column at the corner of the compact L-shaped bar and the kitchen entryway are encased in slate bricks.
The only deviation from predictability is an ostentatiously gaudy blue glass chandelier, but that’s just interior decorating bacon, an awkward attempt at people-pleasing personality.
Unfortunately, the chandelier doesn’t do anything useful in a room besieged by bad lighting.
Owner Jim Sweeney, a New Jersey native who moved here in 2008, was formerly a food and beverage director for Embassy Suites, Hilton and Marriott. His wife and co-owner, Dawn Sweeney, spent more than 15 years on Johnson & Wales University’s administrative staff.
Executive chef Jared Secor’s kitchen is now in autumn mode. The current menu is speckled with cranberries and apples and butternut squash.
There’s seemingly no end to the squash, cubes of which are tucked into a bowl of mussels; stashed beneath a pork chop and strewn across a salad of portabella mushroom wedges and arugula leaves.
Although there are only a few seats at the bar, the lead-off “snacks” section of the menu may have been partly devised for the attractive patio, where diners can cozy up to an outdoor fireplace with a bottle of wine. Or they can draw warmth directly from the miscellaneous selection of little dishes, which includes the expected toasted nuts, pickled vegetables and a totally kooky egg-in-a-hat.
Also borrowed from the breakfast brigade is a baked apple crammed with a dry stuffing made from oversized chunks of pecan bread. Garnished with fat roasted cranberries and varnished with sweet apple cider, the dish is quite sweet.
Better is an old-fashioned plate of toasted baguette rounds slathered with thick mushrooms in a beer-inflected cream sauce, simple as it is rich.
Eaters will find slightly more sophistication, and considerably fewer calories, on the small plates of seafood. Sweeney’s serves a crab salad and three slightly too-seared scallops on a plate smeared with a curried carrot sauce. Steamed mussels suffer from construction mistakes, with the accompanying fries submerged in the garlicky broth and voiding any crispness they’d ever acquired.
Among the entrees, only a sliced roasted chicken seriously disappointed. Beneath its nicely salted and crisped skin, the bird was dried out and flavorless. The kitchen also was rough with a filet and seared salmon, but both fell well within the acceptable category.
There are a few standouts at Sweeney’s. A massive grilled pork chop brushed with maple syrup and perched on a mound of apples and squash was exceptionally tender. And a zippy salad of shredded kale and Brussels sprouts leaves, sliced apples and walnuts was eat-it-all-up terrific. Blasted with crumbled blue cheese and dressed with a citrus vinaigrette that introduced an acidic tang otherwise missing from the table, the salad didn’t need any bacon.