After visiting Aqua (see review), I decided to stop by Sparrow, a nearby restaurant I'd reviewed two years ago ("Cry Fowl," March 17, 2005). At the time, I counted Sparrow among the worst restaurants in the city — the sort of place that was so ridiculously bad on so many levels that a meal there was almost like theater, like a farce with recurring gags involving such bad timing and convoluted setups that every punchline fell depressingly flat. But while I didn't like Sparrow, others did, and some of those people — and not just those who think that wasabi-spiked mashed potatoes are cutting-edge cuisine — kept urging me to return.
Which I did last week, and now I can say with confidence that Sparrow no longer ranks among the worst restaurants in the city. True, this is partly because so many absolutely godawful, embarrassing hellholes of cuisine have put down roots in this town lately, but also because Sparrow has improved — slightly, if only from infamy to mediocrity. One of my problems with this place is how chef Josh Botsford assembles plates. A nice gnocchi in veal and prosciutto Bolognese sauce sounds delicious, right? And Botsford's gnocchi in veal and prosciutto Bolognese has the potential to be delicious. But I don't understand what's going through the mind of a chef who fills a white china trencher two inches deep with thick, chunky sauce and then — almost as an afterthought — scatters a handful of gooey little gnocchi over the top. When I was done with the pasta, there was still enough sauce for six more plates, easy. And then there was the spread of tapas: an overcooked and leathery quasi-chicken Kiev (described by my waiter as chicken cordon bleu) with a side of spaghetti, a sesame-seed-crusted tuna croquette (which tasted just as bad as it sounds) mounted over (no lie) wasabi mashers, and a carne asada relleno. Setting aside the various errors in technique, prep, presentation and flavor, who in the world thinks these three items work well together?
I did have a decent plate of asparagus purée with tiny balled potatoes and a crabmeat salad shot with horseradish vinaigrette. The only problem was that the alleged black bass at the center — beneath the crab salad and on top of the asparagus — had been overcooked on an oily grill so that it tasted like a cheap fillet of haddock. And while the kitchen showed a lot of guts — and a surprising streak of creativity — with the delicious orange and saffron sorbet it offered for dessert (along with two other, more pedestrian flavors), the chocolate gaufrette that garnished the plate tasted like a fried-newspaper egg roll.
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And that won't fly.