Local Spotlight

Hope Is Not a Plan, It's an Eating House

We've been teased for days with gorgeous photography and cryptic but beautiful words. Monica Pope was up to something, and she let it out of its cage on Tuesday. Sparrow Bar + Cookshop is her latest culinary invention, and in a way a personal revolution.

Other than the address and the brick walls, t'afia is no more. In its place are light and air and a familiarity that Pope has been searching for the last couple of years.

She has been hoping to create a space that was a modern-day "cookshop," defined as an eating house. It fulfills our primal, evolutionary need to eat in a convivial, communal space. Pope says food can bring us together and transform us. She has created the space to do just that.

"Spero" means "I hope" in Italian, and the sparrow is the symbol of hope, so there was no doubt what Pope would call the new space. She wanted it to be bar-forward, and then a cookshop. Pope wants Sparrow to be a place where you can drop by for a drink, a snack or a full meal, but mostly for connection -- connection to food, farm, neighbors and community. After Ike, Pope didn't want any more disconnection in her life. In her personal life she has found love, and in her professional life she has found love and wants to share it with her community. She started the OIMBY (Outstanding In My Backyard) dinners because she wanted to share the beauty of her garden, yard, home and heart with her community. Now she can fit more people in Sparrow than in her backyard.

The tables are made from honed and polished steel but feel like leather. It's a cold, hard metal that has all the warmth and hominess of an overstuffed chair. The servers carry well-worn tart pans as trays, and water is served out of science beakers and flasks. They wear denim shirts, gingham ties and welding aprons with blue suede work boots. Pope wants to embrace the working class that the original cookshops were made for and create a place that is not confusing, hard, pretentious or contrived. She tells her staff, "Just care about serving people."

Pope's new menu is sprinkled with some familiar favorites and lots of new items. Gone is the confusing menu of Tafia, replaced by a simple, straightforward seasonal and local menu. There are nine appetizers to share, six "center of plate" items and five sides. Nothing is more than $20, and portion sizes are perfect for sharing. She has a great wine list and an inspired cocktail menu. At the end of your meal, the server brings you a folded note, like the kind you passed in fifth grade, and, for a moment you think, "Did Chef Pope just send me a secret message?" More like a love note of her dessert offerings.

Without hesitation or a moment to think about it, the best dish on the menu is her Shitake Mushroom Dumplings with bleu cheese-honey-mascarpone sauce. The pasta was perfectly al dente, and the mushroom filling was earthy and umami-filled. But it was the bleu cheese sauce that made this dish spectacular -- silky, creamy, tangy, with periodic hits of honey sweetness. I have not had such a perfectly balanced, textured and unbelievable-tasting dish in quite some time. Order two, because you will not want to share.

Pope also added a tartare with Japanese eggplant. I am a tartare fanatic and will always order it if offered. Pope's is different from any other I've had. She served it with grilled chile peppers, and there was a pervasive cumin flavor that was smoky, earthy and seductive in an already sensual dish.

A table favorite was her okra with grits and pickled mustard seeds. Creamy, cheesy grits with seared okra and a vinegary sauce of mustard seeds were fantastic. We also had the big bowl of steamed mussels with pastis shots. The mussels were plump and briny with a garlicky, white wine sauce and crisp toast points. Her new twist is to serve the pastis, normally cooked in the sauce, as a shot -- another way to make the cookshop more friendly, interactive and communal.

Pope also offered veal sweetbreads with crispy Brussels sprouts and caramel miso. The sweetbreads were creamy and had the faint taste of liver that matched perfectly to the crispy, salty Brussels sprouts with miso sauce. It was a beautifully concocted dish. By the time we left, the bar was full and all the other tables had filled up. It didn't feel like a crowded, pretentious restaurant.

In Pope's words, "The bells and whistles of Sparrow is that there are no bells and whistles." Sparrow Bar + Cookshop is open for lunch, open late, and reservations are not required.

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Patrise Shuttlesworth