The tabletops haven’t been fixed to their bases. One of the service bars hasn’t been installed. Lighting fixtures are waiting to be dropped and connected. The new signage hasn’t been put up. And there’s painting to be done.
But none of that stopped Monica Pope Tuesday from opening Sparrow Bar & Cookshop on Tuesday. It's a new chapter being written by a chef who is a pioneer in bringing fresh, local food to Houston. Housed in the former t’afia, which closed about two weeks ago for a quick turnaround, Sparrow is Pope’s thoughtful retooling of her dialogue with food and community.
While saws buzzed and hammers pounded behind her, Pope said she had every intention of serving her new menu Tuesday. True Pope: determined, fearless and full of hope.
Hope, in fact, figures prominently in her life these days. She has completed a memoir with recipes called “Eating Hope,” which she described as a candid and cathartic look at her career and personal life.
And the theme of hope figures in the name of her new restaurant –- the bird is a symbol of hope -- which bears the logo of an empty birdcage with its bars bent open. “It’s what I believe in. This is what gives me hope,” said Pope, a James Beard Award nominee and the first Texas woman to be named a Top 10 Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine. “I want to keep influencing the community and keep supporting the community. It’s a very active context of hope.”
But even two months ago Pope wasn’t sure what Sparrow Bar & Cookshop would be when she decided to go forward with closing her landmark restaurant to chart a new path. She just knew she wanted to retool t’afia and reinvigorate her vision to “eat where your food lives.” In many ways Sparrow will echo t’afia’s mission of accomplished but unfussy fare that reflects the foodstuffs of where we live.
“What I’m trying to do with the food is make it much more flexible, sharable and user-friendly,” said the trailblazing chef who has worked for years to hone better relationships with area growers and purveyors. “We're trying to capture the beautiful materials of the plate – fresh, local and honoring the local community and what they’re growing.”
Not wanting to sound too maudlin, she said, “I had to let t’afia die. I had to let it go and give birth to a new me. I’m in a completely different place with the community.”
She sees herself as a rebooted chef: “Monica 2.0.” And she sees Sparrow as a reflection of a new perspective on food. “I’m getting back to essential ingredients and materials. And they all connect. I want to put out there what I love about Houston.”
Her lunch menu –- the only document she had on hand Tuesday morning to share –- includes a variety of salads including a “Sparrow Cobb”; a summer slaw with miso dressing and marinated tofu; endive salad with bleu cheese, spiced pecans and smoked tuna; and soba noodle salad with cabbage, squash and cilantro. Entrees include mustard-coated rabbit tenderloin with salsa verde; Thai-style mushroom stroganoff with peas and carrots; pomegranate-marinated tofu with coconut chutney and a hanger steak. Everything on the menu is under $20.
Tuesday also saw a reflective Pope, who after two decades as chef (her restaurants have included Boulevard Bistrot, The Quilted Toque and t’afia) is looking toward changing both her culinary and personal game.
“I spent 20 years building it,” she said of her work both in her restaurants, farmers market and cooking classes, “I want to spend 20 years enjoying it.”
She said she wants to keep influencing the community, and that new chapter begins with her new restaurant at 3701 Travis.
“I’m not quitting, I’m trying to get new perspective,” she said. “It has to resonate with people … I hope.”