Sparks touches on Mediterranean using wood-burning oven
One of the paradoxical things about dining in restaurants is that the experience is not always about the food. Consider places like Mickey's Diner, Mancini's, or the Copper Dome in St. Paul's Highland Park. While the Dome's pancakes are textbook and the selection of breakfast meats is staggering, realistically there's nothing you can order that couldn't be replicated in your own kitchen, where you can use real butter and make coffee that doesn't taste like it should be served in a church basement. But what the Dome has going for it is a huge comfort factor, which sometimes supersedes the need for pretense or a mission statement or even real maple syrup. Knowing that the same dusty, ceramic fake food will be "cooking" atop the stove in the waiting area, and that the borderline-offensive old flour advertisements will always adorn the Copper Dome's walls, provides a weird sense of security. In a fast-paced industry that's so often about what's new, it's comforting to know that the tried-and-true places will feel the same visit after visit.
Of course cuisine-wise, Sparks, Jonathan Hunt's new joint in the old Bryn Mawr Coffee Shop space, isn't at all comparable to the Copper Dome. Hunt, already the owner of Al Vento and co-owner of Rinata with business partner Amor Hantous, who is also the head of operations at Sparks, has created a loosely Mediterranean menu that is uniquely centered on a single piece of cooking equipment: the wood-burning oven. Every dish Sparks serves, save for salads, comes out piping hot with the faintest hint of wood smoke. Unlike the aforementioned old standbys, Sparks has been open only a few weeks, but what's similar is the all-important comfort factor. Of the dozen or so dishes I enjoyed at Sparks, I doubt I'll remember any of them a few months from now (and I have food memory the way most people have muscle memory), but I will remember the easy style of service and the simple glow that radiates from this warm, dark restaurant.
I knew three things when I went to Sparks for the first time: 1) Hunt got his start in the restaurant business at a pizza place, 2) Sparks has a few pizzas on the menu, and 3) in combination with points 1 and 2, the whole wood-fire thing would make pizza the can't-miss item here. But I was wrong about No. 3. It's not that the pizza was a failure (try the elegant truffled asparagus version, which stands up to the noticeable dose of salt and oil in the crust), but if you order it as your entree you'll probably miss out on the dishes Sparks does better: the simple roasted meats. Of those, the mussels were the biggest surprise. Cooked in sofrito (sort of the Spanish version of mirepoix — a mix of finely diced tomatoes, onions, and garlic slow-cooked in olive oil and used as the base for a whole slew of traditional dishes), the mussels were as plump as an overstuffed raviolo and clean-tasting, with just a tinge of brine. Be sure to get an order of the chewy homemade pita bread for sopping up the remaining juices. The mix of white and dark roasted Amish chicken was also a lovely specimen: moist and seasoned, with a slightly blackened skin, and perfect with a side of rather acidic braised greens. The ribs, though highly touted by staff and other diners, were overly fatty, but the sweet-spicy-smoky "triple crown" barbecue sauce they were brushed with saved them a bit. Rounding out this section was a pepper-crusted hanger steak, which was juicy and cooked to a rosy medium but, due to being pre-sliced, arrived at the table a little cold. Truthfully, the nubby little stars of this plate were the crisp roasted fingerling potatoes, made even more delicious by a dunk in the accompanying tarragon-rich bearnaise.
Sparks serves its eclectic selection of small plates all day, and those dishes, when mixed and matched, could create a lovely light lunch. A plate of smoky, paprika-hued hummus, a few bites of heady, spicy lamb merguez sausage (also available in a sandwich, served with a glob of ridiculously overdressed coleslaw), and something green and leafy would be an ideal midday meal, especially when enjoyed on Sparks's patio, which doubles the size of this cozy corner restaurant. Speaking of the leafy and green, both the roasted beet and feta, and the roasted pear, bacon, and blue cheese salads have the same paint-by-numbers combination of flavors that seems to be recycled on just about every menu in town. We know sweet and salty play nicely together, but shouldn't we give beets a chance to make friends with something besides feta, goat, and blue cheese when there's a whole world of pickled things, salted seeds, and roasted nuts out there? But I digress. Sparks's versions of these salads, while predictable, were still spry and satisfying. The same can't be said for the Catalan garlic soup, a watery broth with a bitter finish and a floating poached egg that is supposed to be runny but was gelatinous and unappetizing.
Other skippable items include the Texas shrimp cannelloni — a mushy, oily mess in which any discernible trace of ocean freshness was snubbed out by a too-rich lobster cream sauce — and the mushroom and avocado enchiladas, which were pretty intense in the spice department but had the same textural issues as the cannelloni. If you have a pizza craving that has to be satisfied, by all means give the pies a go, but I'd hold out for Lola, Black Sheep, or Element if possible.
The beverage selection, and the wine list in particular, manages to be both baffling and refreshing, with all kinds of unexpected global cameos: Japanese sake-based cocktails infused with tropical flavors, an inexpensive and easy-drinking Serbian red, and a $100 bottle of unfiltered California merlot. Beers on tap represent the best in local brews, including Lake Harriet Divine Oculust, Fulton Lonely Blonde, and Summit Oatmeal Stout Nitro.
There is plenty to like food-wise at Sparks, though I predict some will say the menu and restaurant need to have a clearer identity, perhaps more along the lines of Hunt's other restaurants. But the category Sparks already best fits into is that of beloved neighborhood eatery — the very thing this charming village has been missing. The food isn't on-your-deathbed memorable, but I have no doubt that many couples, families, friends, and neighbors will be making memories here anyway.
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