Cafe Society

Cry Fowl

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan