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Sensory delight ; Chic surroundings, imaginative dishes make Nektar so sweet

The ambience could not be more sophisticated. In Nektar's back room, vividly colored walls meet at odd angles, accented by diaphanous draperies and -- at this moment anyway -- interesting black-and-white photographs. Maybe 10 nicely set tables; good music.

The front room of the restaurant boasts another 10 or so tables and centers around the bar. You can eat in either room and order an excellent martini.

Nektar is well named. It offers an extensive menu of variously colored cocktails and a good wine list as well.

The food lineup is just as interesting. The menu is divided into two sections: Small Plates and Entrees. Small Plates offers the likes of Crab Cakes ($14), Mediterranean Grilled Squid and Octopus with lemon hummus on a toasted pita ($12). Or there is a Nektar Burger with cheddar, sweet potato fries and maple mustard aioli ($12). Or even an open-faced Steak Sandwich for $15, topped with fresh mozzarella, and fries. A shake comes along with this last one.

As you can tell, the small plates are not necessarily "small" -- in fact you can make a hearty meal from almost any of them. Certainly I could have with my order of Stavros' Lamb Chops ($19): four generous little rib chops with the meat scraped off the lower bone -- it's called "frenching" and enables you to eat the meat like a lollipop.

But these lollipops topped a pile of fries combined with what the house calls bruschetta topping, basically a chopped tomato mixture with chunks of cheese. Nektar gets an "A" for effort on this dish; "A" for imagination also.

But sometimes the restaurant's zeal can go too far.

The Companion's Roasted Red Pepper and Saffron Bisque ($7) should have been called Saffron and Red Pepper bisque, if you follow the government regulations that stipulate the most abundant ingredient should be listed first.

Saffron is exotic and it is expensive, but it is also exceedingly strong. There was so much saffron in the soup that the roasted red pepper could hardly be detected. All the more amazing when you consider that roasted red pepper is -- how do I put this? -- not exactly a self-effacing ingredient.

A little too much striving can be blamed, too, for the water that the restaurant serves if you abjure the bottled stuff -- which I always do. Nektar's water contains not only lemon but also cucumber flavor. Please, leave my water alone!

I ordered another starter, also. Chorizo crusted scallops ($12 and an evening special) were delicious. The seared plump seafood was topped with the smoked sausage mixture, served with a fine house salad on the side.

The Companion was ordering from the entree list -- his pappardelle was satisfyingly topped with shrimp, tiny clams and roasted vegetables in a very light tomato sauce ($19). Other entrees include Pan Glazed Salmon over pilaf topped with pineapple salsa and vegetable ($21), Gorgonzola crusted beef filet with sweet potato pancetta hash and wilted arugula for $32 or -- a dish that seems to be more ubiquitous than snow in the Southtowns these days, Lobster Mac 'n Cheese, this time with a truffled cream sauce ($24).

Dessert was the house special Bourbon Bread Pudding, accompanied by white chocolate, dried cherries and a little vanilla bean gelato on the side ($7) -- a day's worth of calories but worth it.

I should mention that we were recognized here -- that really was a pretty large portion of pudding, now that I think back.

***

NEKTAR    

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)    

WHERE: 451 Elmwood Ave; 881-1829. Martinis and contemporary food are the specialties in this restaurant with sophisticated decor. Credit Cards: American Express, Mastercard, Visa.    

FAVORITE DISH: Stavros' Lamb Chops    

NEEDS WORK: Roasted Red Pepper and Saffron Bisque    

PRICE RANGE: Small Plates, $10 to $19. Entrees including vegetables, $19 to $32.    

SERVICE: Excellent    

HOURS: Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to midnight.    
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes    

PARKING: Lot next door

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