Lemony anchovies with chickpeas; photography by Debora Smail
With the opening of her new place Sparrow where her old place T’afia used to be, chef-owner Monica Pope may prove the envy of anyone else facing a Big Birthday. At least that’s the impression I get pondering the logo she’s chosen: not a bird but a birdcage, an empty one, with the bars bent open in the aftermath of an escape.
Opening a few months ago in the year Pope turns 50, this “bar + cookshop” is her fourth restaurant in Houston, not counting her icehouse/BBQ joint Beaver’s. All of the four have been high-profile, chef-driven, and devoted to Pope’s quirky, slow-food, farmer-centric style—long before that was just what Houston chefs do. With Sparrow being the new, improved T’afia from ’04, which was a new, improved Boulevard Bistrot from ’94, which was a new, improved Quilted Toque from ’92, Pope gives every indication of taking flight once again.
“My life’s changed a lot, and the restaurant scene has changed a lot, too,” I overhear the compact, short-haired Pope explain to a table of fans nibbling on her chickpea fries with red-curry ketchup and her “Date With a Pig” combo of Medjool dates, chorizo, bacon and lemon-herbed North African chermoula sauce. The sun sinks behind the red neon “SPARROW” glowing in a nearby window and the booth beneath it.
Do go on, Monica. “Six years ago I didn’t have a computer or a cellphone,” she adds. “And now there’s all this social media.” And so? “At some point, T’afia wasn’t necessarily resonating anymore.” Well, Sparrow is now “resonating” to the point the concrete floor might start cracking and the exposed orange bricks might pop out.
Turns out that some diners—even the ones who loved the place—found T’afia, in its sort of midcentury minimalism, a tad austere. So Pope and her designers from Houston’s Installations, noted for their work at Revival Market and Anvil Bar & Refuge, set out to warm things up. Sometimes you have to remind yourself you’re in the same space, taking in all the salvaged and repurposed materials woven in. There’s old steel wainscoting, chairs of walnut and cherry, an antique butcher block from San Antonio and some antique columns from Paris—Paris, Texas, that is. My single favorite dining-room touches are the hanging light fixtures, each clear bulb surrounded by three rusty, perforated pizza pans.
The soundtrack is a mix of vintage rock, blues and progressive country; I take this as a cue that it’s OK to relax and have fun and enjoy my meal, without feeling as if I have to bow to the chef’s culinary genius. Pope, who has a habit of referring to her peers as “cheffies,” has given Houston the least “cheffy” new restaurant we’ve fallen in love with in a very long time.
T’afia may have died and been reborn in only two weeks, but I get the feeling that the thinking behind Sparrow’s cuisine has evolved over a much longer time. As at T’afia, there’s a host of seasonal and local items, all very ingredient-driven, subjected to techniques that emphasize flavor over some silly, probably minimalist notion of “artistic” presentation. Also, there’s Pope’s habit of grabbing three flavors from exotic locales such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, India and Thailand for every one from a familiar food country like Italy or France. There’s always a touch of harissa or chermoula here or a flourish of Sriracha or sambal olek there, even if it’s on straightforward steak, chicken or salmon.
Sparrow also boasts an emphasis on cocktails. There’s a new bar with 12 seats at a counter of reclaimed Houston live oak held up by metal borrowed from the floor of an old grain bin—plus a menu for the bar that opens each day at the deliciously wicked hour of 10am. And to help launch Sparrow’s also-new emphasis on lunch—instead of Fridays only at T’afia—there’s a menu combining signature dishes and terrific beef and mushroom burgers you’re invited to customize.
If you want something for the table to start at lunch, go with the spicy lamb pâté that arrives in a jar, its radioactive-orange protective topping made from lamb and dove fat colored by ground chiles. Don’t think about it; just grab some toasted crostini and dig in!
Although dinner here is exceptoinal, the sheer casualness of Sparrow keeps you from treating it as Some Big Deal. Just come in, Pope is saying, with or without reservations, with or without a date, with or without any specific cravings. Just come in, and we’ll take care of the rest. And for me, the “rest” should always begin with the cornmeal fried shrimp with strawberry-sumac ranch dressing. I’ve spent most of my life on the Gulf Coast and eaten 10 times my ever-increasing weight in fried shrimp. This is the best version I’ve ever tasted.
Before you finish with appetizers, or tapas—or small plates or whatever you want them to be—be sure you’ve tried Pope’s shiitake-mushroom dumplings in a lush sauce of blue cheese, mascarpone and honey, and, if you want some kind of salad, do the beets and Humboldt Fog chevre with arugula, candied walnuts and sherry-walnut vinaigrette.
My favorite main course so far is the pair of chicken-fried quail, some bones helpfully removed and some not, with both a salsa verde and a lemon-butter sauce. But that’s saying nothing against the duo of Axis venison chop and noisette, paired with a sweet-tart persimmon compote, or the Teres Major steak with a bizarre but wonderful caramel miso. Don’t forget to order sides, with perhaps the best being the “milled” (mashed, sort of) potatoes with your choice of two toppings (I recommend the poppy seeds and the bacon lardoons).
The dessert menu arrives like a love note from a secret admirer, folded up for you to discover. And you’ll fall in love when you start tasting the things listed inside, from the white-chocolate bread pudding made with fluffy, eggy challah and anointed with a spiced crème anglaise, to the even better Italian-style affogato. The latter is essentially a semi-freddo custard outfitted with drizzled caramel, chunks of bittersweet chocolate-cashew toffee and salted caramel popcorn with cacao nibs. If these grownup Cracker Jacks were sold at the movie theater, I’d go see anything they put on the screen.
“People are a bit rattled by all these changes,” I hear Pope explain at another table. “Like yikes! But really, it’s heartwarming for me. Why can’t I incorporate everything I love, everything I’m passionate about?” If that’s ever really a question for Monica Pope, then she’s happy to answer.
“This is my current fascination,” she says, “with what we’ve been doing for years and years.”
Sparrow Bar + Cookshop
3701 Travis St.
Bar 10am-midnight Tue.-Sat.;
Lunch 11am-3pm Tue.-Sat.;
Dinner 5-11pm Tue.-Sat.;
Brunch 10am-3pm Sun.
Bar Foods $3-$10;
Desserts $7-$10 (plus one with a four-part flight of Madeiras for $20)
Queen of farm-to-table and leader of locavores, Monica Pope is back with her latest version of global cooking from just down the street—served up in a trendily industrial-chic space.
Free valet, and street meters
Ready to Wear
Wildly casual: jeans, T-shirts, shorts. Anything that passes for clothing, actually.
Sparrow is “bar-forward,” inviting customers to start at the bar and feel welcome to remain there. There’s an impressive collection of “Ten-Dollar Cocktails,” like the #13 with Last Word gin, Chartreuse, lime and bitters, plus aperitifs, craft beers and Texas sakes.
Saturday Morning Special
Can’t wait for Sunday for brunch? Sparrow does Saturday proud. You can design your own omelet, or opt for eggs layered with corn tortillas and ranchero sauce. The challah French toast is amazing.