Recharged. Re-imagined. Renewed. Revitalized.
If you’re one of the lucky diners who has visited Sparrow Bar + Cookshop recently, you might have heard chef Monica Pope use some of those re- words when talking about her new restaurant, a reboot of the former t’afia.
You might have seen the chef — a steadfast locavore and a pioneer of Houston’s local farm-to-table movement — beaming with pride over the physical and emotional reworking of her beloved t’afia. She has every reason to be happy. The bar is bustling with thirsty craft cocktalians. The dining room, with its industrial, re-purposed furnishings, is packed. And the kitchen is humming with renewed purpose.
Not bad for a chef who admitted even months ago she wasn’t sure what Sparrow Bar + Cookshop would be when she decided to close her landmark restaurant to chart a new path. She just knew she wanted to retool t’afia and re-plot her vision to “eat where your food lives.”
In many ways Sparrow echoes t’afia’s mission of accomplished but unfussy fare. “What I’m trying to do with the food is make it much more flexible, sharable and user-friendly,” Pope said. “We’re trying to capture the beautiful materials of the plate — fresh, local and honoring the local community and what they’re growing.”
Recent menus bear that out, but also suggest a kitchen that is finding new voice within a familiar Pope vocabulary. Starters have included shiitake mushroom dumplings in a bleu cheese/honey/mascarpone sauce; chicken-fried lamb sweetbreads; gold and red beet salad with marjoram pesto; star anise-braised pork cheeks with crispy Brussels sprouts; and tempura of baby eggplant and baby squash. Entrees — kobe skirt steak, lamb belly satay, antelope chop, roasted young chicken, grilled scallops and swordfish steak — are meant to be paired with a roster of side dishes such as grits with black-eyed peas, steamed Swiss chard with soy sauce and sesame oil, milled potatoes with bacon lardons, macaroni and cheese and succotash.
Pope has called this endeavor “Monica 2.0.” Makes sense. She’s rewriting her dialogue with food and community, and, not insignificantly, herself. She has completed a memoir with recipes called “Eating Hope,” which she described as a candid, cathartic look at her career and personal life. That theme figures in the name of her new restaurant — the sparrow 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 the 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.”
Pope said she wants to keep influencing the community, and she hopes that Sparrow will resonate with Houston diners. The reinvigorated, recommitted and redefined chef needn’t worry.
Sparrow Bar + Cookshop: 3701 Travis