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Check out Sparrow Bar + Cookshop in our slideshow.
3701 Travis St.
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
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"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.
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.
"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?
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.
The revamped dining room with its plush loveseats in sultry red or the smaller, more intimate touches that bring Pope's idea of Sparrow as "cookshop" — beakers of water and test tubes of pepper at each table, birdcage-esque lamps swaying gently above — are too lovely to languish in the dark. And so is Pope's food — because when it's good, it's simply stunning and more than deserving of a spotlight all its own.
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