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SAUCE

Site's culinary conversion is worthy of good conversation

SOMERVILLE -- We were a bit leery about 400 Highland, the new incarnation of the much-reviled Sauce in Davis Square. The short-lived restaurant and bar had small plates of bad food for too much money, a waiter who mocked one of us for ordering a Sprite instead of alcohol, and a revolving door of managers who couldn't keep the place from shutting down after just 14 months in operation.

What worried us was the fact that, aside from a paint job and an emphasis on dining rather than drinking, 400 Highland looked almost exactly the same -- and it hadn't changed ownership. How different could it really be?

We paid our first official visit on a Thursday night, sitting at the wine bar so we could watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen. There wasn't a lot of action, just a couple of guys sprinkling salt and toasting bread in the hearth oven, but it was fun to watch everyone crawl under the bar in order to get in and out. The conversation kept returning to Sauce (the restaurant, not the column), and when we asked the bartender what he knew about the place, he wrinkled his nose in disdain. I went there once, he said, and never again.

Executive chef Zachary Lord, who wasn't a part of Sauce, overheard us and promised that our 400 Highland experience would be infinitely better. The warm night air was flowing in through the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows out front, the cocktails were strong and sweet, and we were ready to believe him.

Our first indication that things had changed was the duck confit, a salty leg of goodness served with orange segments on a bed of wilted watercress. Another important difference: The televisions at the wine bar had been removed. Things were looking up already.

The chilled avocado soup tasted as if it came out of a tube, but the self-described ''garbage disposal" among us didn't seem to mind, and we quickly polished off the steak salad, a mound of rare beef, bitter radicchio, and blue cheese that we renamed ''steak mountain."

When we started in on the entrees, however, all else was forgotten. The seared scallops, surrounded by delicate, lemony greens, artichoke hearts, and potato fingers, were oh-so-fresh and creamy. The posole, which the bartender claimed was better than the posole he'd had in Mexico, was indeed delicious, with shredded pork, hominy, and a dollop of guacamole swimming in a perfectly spicy, cilantro-y broth that we couldn't stop slurping. The halibut was about as exciting as halibut can get -- seriously -- roasted to a golden brown on top and served with crisp wax beans and a stack of roasted tomato slices.

The promisingly named Vegetable Love was way too heavy, though, with oily artichokes and cherry tomatoes drowning in Parmesan and giant fried risotto fritters that tasted like hash browns. We were not feeling this love. Not even the garbage disposal could finish it. Why is it that vegetarians always get the shaft?

The restaurant's food is billed as California Mediterranean, but the chatty executive chef, who came from San Francisco for this job (and because his girlfriend is in medical school here), said he chose the concept so he could cook whatever he wanted. After talking about his problems importing food from Europe and the horrors of Wisconsin Parmesan, he noticed the dessert menu in front of us and took our order. He paid for our meyer lemon tart, which one of the chefs told us took him three weeks to get right (and did he ever), and told us about learning to make the warm, fluffy chocolate budini in Italy.

Meanwhile, a fire flickered in the brick oven, a guy with a long braid gave back rubs down the bar from us, and the annoying yuppie bar crowd that frequented That Other Place was nowhere to be seen. Could it be that the demons of Sauce have been exorcised?

400 Highland, 400 Highland Ave., Somerville. 617-625-0200, www.400highland.com. Lounge menu $6-$14; entrees $17-$26.

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