By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
Check out Sparrow Bar + Cookshop in our slideshow.
"This is still Monica's restaurant; this is still Monica's food."
You can hear that same greeting ringing out across Sparrow Bar + Kitchen each night as waiters assure diners at their tables — usually within the first minute of being seated — that the more things change, the more they stay the same. "Have you been to t'afia before?" they'll ask. The greeting that follows seems to be the same regardless of whether your answer is a yes or no. This is still Monica's restaurant. This is still Monica's food.
3701 Travis St.
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
It's an odd sort of chant for a place that chef and owner Monica Pope sought to transform so completely, from the "confusing" and "overpriced" menus (criticisms I heard quite frequently) and the hard-edged, industrial feel of its former incarnation — t'afia — into this new venture, one that is supposedly more casual, more accessible and more comfortable. Even the name, Sparrow, is meant to indicate a sense that Pope is flying free, set loose from the cage of t'afia's constraints and expectations.
"Boulevard Bistrot, Quilted Toque and t'afia are interesting expressions of where I was at," Pope told me back in August, shortly after t'afia closed and just before Sparrow opened its doors. "It's a new chapter. They say it's Monica 2.0, but it feels like Monica 6.0. It's about what gets me excited, and I need that excitement."
And although I still love Pope's farm-fresh food as much as I ever did, it's difficult to get excited when you're dining in the dark — both literally and metaphorically.
The plate of cheese-infused grits draped with lovely slices of dusky, citrus-tinged antelope — frizzled at the edges from a turn through what tasted like a cast-iron skillet — that I dug into eagerly during my first visit to Sparrow wasn't technically "still Monica's food." But the spirit of t'afia remained intact in the dish nevertheless: a layer of recognizable comfort, a layer of modern charm, all of it tied together by Pope's insistence on using seasonal foods that she can find as close to home as possible.
That dark antelope flesh was brightened in typical Pope fashion by a light-handed flick of gremolata, that Italian spread made from parsley, garlic and flashes of lemon zest — a condiment that did double duty by cutting through the creaminess of the grits and tying the dish together with the kind of subtle ease that comes from someone who's intimately familiar with his ingredients and how they'll all interact.
The shiitake mushroom dumplings, however, were pure t'afia — left-over stalwarts from the old menu that still please palates today with an intriguingly sweet-and-sour sauce that's equal parts honey, mascarpone and stout blue cheese. To have the two side by side was to witness old and new working together in harmony, although I was confused by the difference in size between two plates that were ostensibly both appetizers.
Sparrow's menu is divided into three sections: Apps To Share...Or Not, Center of Plate and Add A Side. There is also a bar menu, which contains yet a fourth section of dishes to choose from and — quite helpfully, actually — is available all day long, even while the kitchen is closed between lunch and dinner. And while the dishes on the bar menu are fairly straightforward — you know that you're going to get small nibbles here, such as the irresistible, bacon-wrapped "Date with a Pig" bites that are a sweet, meaty, one-two punch of explosive flavor in a deceptively small package — that's not always the case with the other three sections.
The appetizer of grits with antelope during that first visit was large enough for an entrée portion. But the dumplings came four to a plate and my two dining companions and I eyed each other greedily to decide who'd get the fourth. Sparrow's menu is meant to be less complex than t'afia's, but so far that's not the case. It's simply too difficult to tell, when you're ordering, which appetizer plates will come out in main course-size servings and which entrées will come out disappointingly small.
The menu is of little assistance in this area, and even the prices don't do a good job of denoting portion size. This leaves you to rely almost entirely on your waiter for a thorough explanation of each dish, which isn't fair to the staff when there's a full dining room and isn't fair to people who want a simple, straightforward meal — Sparrow's promised contract with its diners.
More frustrating is the lighting inside Sparrow, which seems an odd comment to make — but only if you haven't yet dined there. On my first visit, I was lucky enough to sit by a window illuminated by a streetlamp outside and wasn't bothered by the dimly lit dining room.
On my second visit, however, my two dining companions and I struggled to read our menus (I took out my iPhone at several points to use a handy flashlight app), struggled to see one another and struggled to see our food. Although we all wear contacts or glasses, none of us suffer from any other visual impairments — and between the three of us, the median age was 30. I mention this because a friend of mine who's a service manager chided me later for being frustrated with the lighting scheme inside Sparrow.