While I was quick to name Sparrow Bar + Cookshop -- the revamped restaurant from chef Monica Pope and the subject of this week's cafe review -- as the No. 1 restaurant in Midtown a few weeks ago, it was not without some reservations.
Namely, Sparrow leaves its customers in the dark too often -- both literally and figuratively speaking. The menu here 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 (such as chicken leg confit and grits), and which entrees will come out disappointingly small (such as seared scallops with chermoula).
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?
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SHOW ME HOW
Fortunately, this week's slideshow features Sparrow during the daylight hours and gives you a better idea of the redecorated interior of the old t'afia -- an interior which I would love even more if I could see it by night too.