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"Old people love the light," she said. It's a disappointing restaurant truism — the same line of reasoning that leads to loud, din-filled restaurants with aggressive soundtracks and hard surfaces for all of it to bounce about on — and one that I disagree with. Everyone loves the light, not just the feared elderly (who, by the way, also like to eat out, too). The 25-year-old grad student at Parsons School of Design in New York City — possibly the hippest person I know — with whom I was dining even complained throughout the meal about the cave-like quality of the light.
"It's brighter outside than it was in there," she commented after we left and walked across Winbern to grab cocktails at Double Trouble.
Your restaurant doesn't need to be lit up like a Furr's Cafeteria, but your waiters shouldn't have to carry flashlights around so that their diners can see the menus. And that's exactly what the waiters at Sparrow are forced to do at night. I'm already acutely aware that they dislike their hot, heavy, neck-to-knee leather aprons (one waiter told me so in no uncertain terms, apropos of nothing, before I'd even ordered one night); why make them carry flashlights, too?
3701 Travis St.
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
As it was on that second visit, it's perhaps for the best that we couldn't see some of our dishes too clearly. Pert scallops arrived beautifully cooked and with a ruddy flourish of cumin-flecked chermoula on top, but there were only four on the plate. Because you order sides separately here — three for $18 or $8 apiece — entrées such as the scallops can look painfully stark on their big white plates, all alone. It adds to the sting of the $19 price tag to know that — because they are bereft of any accompaniment — each scallop is nearly $5. You'd better enjoy every bite.
Bone marrow was another disappointment, a $15 plate of three femurs that each barely contained enough marrow to spread across one tiny crostini. An $18 piece of wahoo was completely overcooked outside and rare in the middle, the victim of a too-hot oven, while the beet and tarragon chutney on top tasted of absolutely nothing — the sheer blandness was so pronounced that I made my other two dining companions verify its lack of flavor — and held none of the promised pine nuts.
On the other hand, an appetizer of fall-off-the-bone-tender chicken leg confit over those same sumptuous grits was quite large enough for one person's dinner — and cost only $13. Another appetizer of avocado sashimi — so good I've ordered it twice in a row — may seem expensive at $10 for half an avocado sliced sushi-style, but the intriguingly spicy almond sambal that features prominently on top interacts with the fatty fruit in such fun, interesting ways that's it well worth the price.
Deft touches on an entrée of crispy, panko-breaded chicken rendered the flattened breast moist and tender while the simple, light glaze lemon butter on top was all the dish needed to sing. And it paired beautifully with the side of mashed potatoes I'd ordered, topped with a tangy sauce of poppyseed crème fraîche, but I couldn't help consider the fact that all together the chicken and potatoes cost $25. It was delicious, yes, but it was also the same sort of comfort food you can find elsewhere for far less expense.
The meal I'd built would have cost more, except that my friends and I ordered three sides to split, knocking a couple of bucks off the price of each. Although the chicken was exemplary — as were the butternut squash-and-sweet potato gratin and the Asian-influenced steamed Swiss chard we'd also ordered — it was still an odd way to piece together a meal. If the sides you order clash or don't quite match up with your wahoo, for example, the onus is on you as a diner. You chose poorly.
I understand the trend towards offering Russian nesting doll-style menus of variously sized plates, but it doesn't work in every application. And Sparrow is one of the instances in which I'd much rather be guided by the talented Pope and her cooks than be left to my own devices to construct a meal. I want to be presented with a plate in which all of the parts were chosen deliberately and with consideration.
After all, it's Pope's ability to pair incredibly disparate ingredients and influences within one dish — Italian and Southern and Moroccan all blending together, for example — that makes me love her food. I keenly wish to see that same process extended to a full plate of dinner. For as delicious as Sparrow's scallops are, I would love to see them delivered along with an equally delicious side or to at least be given a hint as to which dishes would be best suited for the unusual Moroccan sauce on top.
The foundations of Sparrow itself are firm, but I don't believe they are fixed. And this is a good thing. Pope is nothing if not willing to reinvent herself and her restaurants. I believe that with a little tweaking here and there, Sparrow will soar: Turn the lights up a bit, make the menus more accessible both reading comprehension-wise and price-wise or, alternately, go heavier on the really mod stuff if the prices must stay in place so that diners feel they're really getting a good bang for their buck.