Cafe is a breath of culinary fresh air
It is so refreshing to have the light of the day caress your cheek through a neighboring window while colorful décor, simple furniture and cutlery create a non-cluttered, inviting dining setting.
Among many big-box, chain establishments, that simplicity is lost or shrouded by artificial lighting and tables squished together in an effort to maximize dining capacity and in the pages and pages of large portioned-meals. The Sweet Tea literally allowed me to take in a breath of fresh air. It may be slightly east of Main St. past downtown Gainesville on University Avenue, but the instantaneous feeling of separation from chaos that accompanies the arrival makes the Sweet Tea at Sweetwater Branch Inn reason enough to venture over, 'to the other side of Main St.'
Upon arrival at the inn, I was slightly confused in finding an adequate parking area, let alone exactly where the restaurant was itself, as I had never been prior. Pro tip: Parking in the back forces you to walk through the grounds of the sweetest picturesque inn around, with its outdoor gazebos and various quaint cottages scattered across the lawn. The restaurant, although it had a sign on the front lawn, was located in the Historicly preserved McKenzie House,
so I was slightly deterred. However, once inside, streams of light flood in from the windows and to the left you are greeted with a living room-size dining space with multiple sizes of wooden dining tables and decor. Colorful decorations hung all around adjacent tables, which due to the small space was a tad too close together for a too-private conversation. Nonetheless, I felt like I was about to join a tea party in the old South.
I met with GLOB Publisher Mike at lunch time on a Monday, as The Sweet Tea is only open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The narrow, two-sided menu had just enough variation to give multiple healthier, as well as more indulgent, choices, while keeping its southern flair in an attempt to keep the theme of the atmosphere. I felt it would be almost an insult not to order some sweet tea, but the special that day was a berry hibiscus tea, and I was not one to pass that up. However, much like Southern Charm Kitchen's hibiscus tea, it was a tad too sweet and syrupy on its own, so a half hibiscus, half unsweetened tea combo made for the perfect summertime treat.
Mike and I already know the drill: Order two entrees to share; maximizing every meal experience is what we are all about! As this was lunch, the delicious-sounding heavier entrees, namely the 'Oops! I Dropped the Chicken Pot Pie' and the 'Cracker Crumb Fried Chicken,' didn't sound quite as viable unless a post food coma could be managed. Apparently, the 'Sweet Tea's Fried Shrimp' is only available on Thursdays and Fridays, but is worth the trek, as this take on butterflied fried prawn is a unique rendition on a southern favorite, shrimp and grits.
Immediately, my eyes fell on the Grilled Watermelon Salad, image at the top of this reviw, which Nicole, our customer friendly server, mentioned was big enough to share in the small size, $7. A few rectangular-shaped blocks of watermelon with the charred look, although somewhat unremarkable, provided a fresh yet slightly smoky contrast to sweet vinaigrette over a bed of greens. The candied pecans and goat cheese were welcome additions, although I wish there was a more generous helping of each. The pickled onions and cucumbers were a nice, flavor-packed touch. The most unique aspect of the salad was using cubes of cornbread as a crouton of sorts. Unfortunately, it was so crumbly I barely got to each one piece before it fell apart. Note: I do hold cornbread to high standards, but this was lacking. It was a nice salad, but didn't blow me away as the description suggested it might.
At a Southern establishment, something fried also had to make its way to the table. This underdog of a meal choice ended up being this lunch hour's true winner: the Southern Catfish Po'Boy, $10. I will preface this by mentioning that I am very aware that this was not a true po'boy, which is all in the bread. A crustier French bread is the norm for this New Orleans-based staple, but The Sweet Tea's rendition used two thick slabs of Texas toast to hold in the fillings. In this case, I am so glad they did: The buttery, crunchy bread was almost addicting in combination with the slaw coated in Cajun pecan mayo and the fresh crisp of the pickles. The candied jalapenos made enough of a presence to pack a slight punch, but I was most impressed with how well it all meshed with the fried catfish. I am just as glad that Mike and I split this meal, as one half was a ton of bread...sweet, delicious bread. The side of mac and cheese, $2, came highly recommended, too, so a little teacup side of very cheesy bowtie mac and cheese with a spicy kick was an ideal companion to this heartier dish.
I steered Mike away from the desserts of the day due to being full to the brim, but I have to say that chocolate fudge pie and peach tart sound extremely mouth-watering, especially with a dollop of Bourbon whipped topping. They are so seasonal that they are not included on the menu, so be sure to ask before ordering your meal so you know if you should save room! There is a complete The Sweet Tea menu at the restaurant link brlow this review.
Not only will the relaxing, homey environment away from Gainesville's typical manic hustle and bustle at lunch time entice a return trip to The Sweet Tea, but I have got to try the warm — yes, warm — strawberry salad with candied pecans and a hot bacon vinaigrette. Also, I am too curious as to whether the fried chicken there can rival my Gainesville favorite at Southern Charm Kitchen.
The best comment of the lunch was when Mike proclaimed, after commenting on the frilly, doily-esque place mats, "Now you see why I wouldn't invite a table of my guy buddies to join me here."
The pluses and minuses of The Sweet Tea:
The Sweet Tea (+) indicators: Friendly, informed service; Sweet space; Comforting environment; Nice menu variety; Southern flair with a twist; Outside the crazy congested areas of town; Good value for portion size and quality
The Sweet Tea (-) indicators: One server so not ideal for large groups; Limited hours open only during the week
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