Local Spotlight

A Date with a Pig and Much More at Monica Pope's Sparrow Bar + Cookshop

Chef's Monica Pope's new concept to replace the famed t'afia is called Sparrow Bar + Cookshop. She chose the word because it resembles the Latin word for "hope" -- "sperare," fitting -- not only because she is working on a memoir entitled Eating Hope, but also because hope is truly one of the main themes in her life right now, as she shared with Eating Our Words recently. And, coincidentally, sparrows -- the birds -- symbolize hope.

But let's not fly away too far from the main draws of Sparrow Bar + Cookshop: the food and the gorgeous, rustic setting it is served in.

The intimate, redesigned t'afia space is as cozy as ever, with plenty of iron, wood and distressed brick around. Colorful fresh flowers adorn every table, and unique and creative lighting fixtures emit a warm, dim light. Sparrow's interiors make you feel so at home that you might, for a second, think that you're actually at your Grandma's house.

Pairing perfectly with its setting, Sparrow's food menu is short and sweet, and screams "comfort," featuring a handful each of appetizers, side dishes and main courses, each with its own personality.

"Quality over quantity" seems to be the adage here, although there is certainly no lack of diverse flavors and regions represented throughout Chef Monica's offerings. Southern, Mediterranean, African and Asian influences all figure into the menu. And the farm-to-table tradition that began at t'afia is seamlessly carried into Sparrow via ingredients of the freshest kind. Even the tables are made of repurposed farm equipment.

As I visited Sparrow for a media dinner, I was able to taste many of Pope's creations in one sitting. One of my favorites of the night was the date with a pig -- love its clever name -- a date with bacon and chorizo. While the appetizer was bite-size, it was bursting with flavor. Many of my companions downed it in one bite, but I was wise to eat it in four. It had so much flavor that to have eaten it in one bite would have overloaded my palate. The smokiness of the fresh chorizo was contrasted by the sweetness of the date, and given a surprising sweet-spicy touch with dabs of chermoula -- a marinade of Moroccan descent.

Also quite memorable was a dish composed of a fried squash blossom topped with saffron-sherry sauce alongside two macarons made by Jackie Burdisso of Maison Burdisso. The macarons looked ordinary, but were anything but. One was filled with a reduction of raspberries, red bell pepper and white chocolate ganache, while the other was filled with a beet, balsamic vinegar and white peppercorn reduction. The strange fillings of the macarons somehow worked. If anything, they were an intriguing conversation starter.

By way of "main" dishes, a small sample of the red wine-braised Kobe short ribs with truffled celery root and pink pearl apple sauce hit the spot. Anybody can serve Kobe beef, but not everyone can cook it perfectly. The pairing should be simple, and match the flavors and delicacy of kobe beef. The chunky, crunchy, refreshing salad did just that.

Perhaps most crowd-pleasing were the side dishes that we sampled, such as the okra and grits. At the risk of losing my increasingly legitimate Southern gal credentials, I admit to you that in the 17 years that I've lived in Texas, I have never liked either grits or okra. Grits, with their mushy texture and flavorless taste profile, and okra, with its slimy consistency and unimpressive taste, have never won my taste buds over -- until my Sparrow visit.

In the hands of Chef Monica Pope, these two uninspiring foods came alive. A generous portion of fluffy, grainy, flavorful grits was topped with thin slices of flash-fried okra that was surprisingly and pleasantly missing that mucous-like consistency. Pickled mustard seeds kicked the flavor "up a notch," as Emeril Lagasse would say, without being overpowering.

When I shared my breakthrough into the world of okra and grits with Chef Monica, she replied with a sly smile on her face, "Well, your only problem was that you weren't eating the right okra and grits." Hers were definitely the "right" kind -- they are not to be missed, just as the creamy carbonara-style mac and cheese topped with an egg (also a side dish) is not to be missed.

Often overlooked at chef-driven restaurants such as Sparrow is the beverage list, whether it's the wine, liquor or cocktail options. Sparrow has itself a nice little wine and liquor list, but most attractive is the cocktail list, as it offers high-end cocktails that use ingredients you don't see everywhere: tamarind puree, red bell pepper puree, chipotle sour, rosemary syrup and velvet falernum, to name a few of the uncommon ingredients.

Actually, "uncommon" might be one of the better words to describe Sparrow as a whole -- everything from its cuisine to its drinks to its decor and ambience are uncommon, in a completely positive way. Monica Pope is succeeding yet again in marking Houston with her culinary talent, even with only two weeks under her belt at Sparrow. In keeping with the restaurant's name and theme, I hope Houstonians will appreciate the restaurant and bar's eclectic personality as much as I did.

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Carla Soriano