There's one thing I never do at a restaurant -- send back a plate -- but I did at Sparrow.
Another thing I never do is come straight to the point, and I'm breaking that rule now, too: This bird needs to have its wings clipped, immediately.
Some history: The restaurant's address at 410 East Seventh Avenue once belonged to Sacre Bleu, a classic '90s French joint that opened when Denver was flying high in early 2000 and then, as money hemorrhaged out of the Mile High restaurant economy, collapsed under the top-heavy weight of its own pretension two years later. In the fall of 2002, the space became Vega, a tragic high-water mark for Denver dining. White tablecloths, expensive crystal, tableside silver service -- Vega was everything Denver no longer wanted (and could no longer afford). Chef Sean Yontz's Latino-fusion concept menu was great, but the intimidating room failed to attract enough young money in a market where several other houses were already doing the white-tablecloth, fine-dining, Latino-whatever thing and the customer base of adventurous gastronauts was growing thinner and thinner with each passing month.
Vega lasted eighteen months. Sean Yontz loudly retired from the fine-dining scene, going into consulting (more or less). And the exit of both restaurant and chef from the high-end landscape rang the death knell for that segment of the industry in Denver. Smart operators backed off from the fussy, intellectual model and fell back on mid-range and fun, on regional comfort foods and classical technique -- which is where owners and chefs always retreat when times get tight.
But Nancy and Mark Scruggs and Boston-trained, multi-starred veteran chef Joshua Botsford apparently didn't hear the bells ringing when they signed on to pick up the space and reinvent it as Sparrow last year. Or perhaps they heard and just ignored them, thinking they were immune to the market forces that have taken down so many other good houses. And in some ways, maybe they were.
Over the past month, I made several runs at this place -- all of them on Friday or Saturday nights -- and the floor was always loaded up. By six, Sparrow was near enough to fully committed to just say it was; by seven, the staff was turning tables vacated by early arrivals. That meant on a good night, Sparrow was doing at least two full turns of the dining room, probably more like three, and in a space this size, that's about the break-even point. Sparrow's fans post raves and gushing crush notes on all the foodie message boards. Acquaintances I once considered rational and right-thinking people (and now hesitate to call friends) love the place beyond reason, returning again and again to be victimized by this kitchen, then telling me how much they enjoyed it as though they were suffering from some sort of collective culinary Stockholm Syndrome -- held hostage by whatever marginal charms this restaurant possesses and just glad to be alive. Unless there's some secret cash-flow problem not obvious to the casual diner (like maybe paying out on whatever unholy deal with the devil the owners made to get this many people coming back night after night), the restaurant is making money.
But it's no longer taking mine.
My first visit to Sparrow started out well. At his stand by the door, the valet was reading a back issue of The Economist -- a good sign. Then I stepped inside, and immediately liked what the new owners had done with the space. Without altering the flow of the room -- which had been improved when the place became Vega, the floor broken into sections by short walls and tall banquette seats -- they'd warmed it up considerably, replacing the white-and-gold frostiness with a pea-soup green and earth-tone color palette. The tablecloths had been yanked in favor of bare tops set with tea lights and good stemware. In back, the wall had been opened up with a pass window looking out on the floor, a show kitchen and chef's-table bar seating, where customers (like yours truly) could lounge shoulder to shoulder with John and Jane Q. Pocketmoney and watch Botsford's crew abuse their dinners.
I ordered a nice glass of wine -- something Spanish from the bottom of the short list, decanted from a little glass vial by my server (in retrospect, I should've asked her to just bring the bottle) -- and waited for my trio of tapas, an on-menu special that changes daily.
Forty-five minutes later, when the long, white plate finally arrived, I knew there was going to be trouble. Big trouble. The ground-pork empanada looked and tasted like it had been bought frozen at Sam's Club. The fried fish with french fries and citrus tartar sauce -- presented as a gussied-up take on a blue-collar fish-and-chips special -- was so greasy, stupid, poorly conceived and badly trimmed that it made me want to hit someone. And the mini-assiette à fromage that rounded out the trio should have embarrassed any self-respecting garde-manger man passing within a hundred yards of it: One of the three cheese wedges had been broken in half and stuck back together; another (a gouda) was so old and oxidized that it tasted like the refrigerated air of the galley lowboy. The cheeses had been buried under a pointless handful of greens and served (if you can call it that) with no crackers, no toast points, nothing. Sure, I'd had table bread, but I'd eaten all that while waiting for my order to show up, and no one was offering any more, so I ate the soft cheese off the blade of my knife and just stuck the hard piece in my pocket. When I left, twenty bucks lighter and deeply concerned, I threw it at a squirrel.
In recent years, tapas have been stretched badly beyond the bounds of their original conception -- occasionally done well, more often badly -- and this bungled dish was the worst possible example. No wonder the trio changes daily: It looked like the kitchen uses it as a way to make a few bucks off the stuff languishing in coolers that otherwise would just be tossed out, resulting in ugly pairings forced by economic considerations. Even so, the plate had been so inadequately executed on every possible level that I figured there must have been a mutiny on the garde manger station, because a pro crew should still show better chops than that.
When I returned, it was for a full-blown dinner with guests, multiple courses, wine, dessert -- a real test. And Sparrow failed with flying colors. Tempura-fried calamari with lemon oil tasted like crunchy squid and lemon Pledge. The mixed green salad with goat cheese, pears and white balsamic? A fucking insult -- just a pile of bagged mesclun mix thrown down thoughtlessly on a dish, uncomposed and unstemmed. When I was still working cold apps, if I'd dared put out any salad with unstemmed greens, I would've spent the next week pulling the stems off of every leaf in the house. My chef would have sent me up into the trees to stem them, and I would've deserved it. And when I'd done my time, damned if I would ever make that mistake again.
The grilled asparagus topped with a poached egg and truffled zabaglione was respectable, if a copycat plate done better elsewhere. But at least it was edible, which is more than I can say for the fried chicken and macadamia-nut spring rolls with mango sambal, which would have been more at home on the new T.G.I. Friday's "Tastes of the Southwest" menu. Or better yet, back in 1994.
After that, the plate of duck breast and confit leg mounted and fanned over braised chard and a potato cake, and floored with a tarn of smooth, tart cherry sauce, was a pleasant surprise. The duck was tender and judiciously spiced, with nothing that would overwhelm its flavor, the potato fondant was an appropriate starch, and the sauce was subtly sweet against the essential gaminess of the meat. The portion was big, too, which was lucky, because no one at our table wanted a second bite of the Moroccan braised pork shoulder "osso buco."
A survival tip for foodies: Whenever a dish appears in quotes on a menu -- "osso buco" or "crème brûlée" or "tasty" -- it's gonna "suck." Guaranteed. The pork in this awful "osso buco" was dry where it should've been butter-tender and lubricated by the braising liquid; the short portion of couscous was wet where it should've been dry and fluffy. And the kitchen had forgotten the dates entirely.
For dessert, Sparrow offers blood-orange crème brûlée (no quotes), baked Alaska, a coffee-Frangelico mousse, housemade doughnuts done three ways (cake-style, with pastry cream and cinnamon-apple) and a minted molten chocolate bombe -- which, admirably, was announced to us midway through our entree course by a server who wanted to let us know it would take twenty minutes to prepare. But by now, all we wanted to do was fly away.
On a third visit to Sparrow, I suffered through another round of tapas -- another unstemmed salad, a tartare of old salmon and the worst Vietnamese spring roll I've ever encountered. Then came a dull and overthought appetizer of spicy tuna tartare wrapped in tuna sashimi, dressed with fried wonton skins and served in a decent gingered pomegranate-soy sauce, as well as a ridiculously bad bowl of linguine in Genovese pesto with hard little cubes of undercooked potatoes, unwashed haricots vert and ugly shreds of flaccid chicken. After these thoroughly demoralizing courses, though, I was shocked by a Tuscan bouillabaisse that, while far and away the most complicated preparation on the menu, was not just acceptable, but actually good.
My dinner had been constantly interrupted by bussers refilling my water glass (they averaged a stop every six minutes -- I timed them -- and would even top off a glass that I hadn't touched since the last time they'd been by), my server asking me if everything was okay and me lying to her and saying it was. Now, desperate for something sweet to get the taste of raw potatoes out of my mouth, I told her to bring me the baked Alaska.
It's tough to screw up dessert; tough to make people unhappy when you're giving them something sweet. But Sparrow managed to do just that.
When the baked Alaska finally arrived, it was frozen so solid that I couldn't even get my fork into it. Whoever was handling desserts that night had obviously pulled one of the frozen little hedgehogs out of the freezer, not even bothering to check if it was edible, then just put a kitchen torch to the tips of the meringue to make the dessert look as though it had been properly flamed. It was a Black Forest cake and vanilla ice cream glacier. A cherry-topped ice cube.
So when my server came by and asked, for what seemed like the hundredth time, if everything was all right, I finally snapped and just said no. I broke my own rule of never sending anything back, never drawing attention to myself, and asked for the dessert to be taken away and my check to be brought.
While I was waiting, a busboy topped off my water glass. Then a second one came by, filling it to within a quarter-inch of the rim. A third one looked like he might make a move on that last little bit of space, but I grabbed the check before he could make up his mind.
And I discovered that Sparrow had finally done something right: It had taken the baked Alaska off the tab.
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