Brian Howard’s long-awaited Sparrow + Wolf takes flight with thrilling, high-concept cuisine
Your reaction to Sparrow + Wolf will depend on a number of things, first and foremost being where you rate yourself on the foodie continuum. Gastro-nomads who wander the earth searching for oases of ingenious edibles have already pitched their tents here. Intrepid gastronauts — those addicted to culinary travels to where no man has gone before — have been here since day one. Simple gastronomes who revel in chef-enhanced, high-quality ingredients will not be disappointed, either. But if you’re the type who finds Spring Mountain Road too challenging, or if you’re someone simply looking for a good plate of grub, the sledding might be a tad heavy. Those who put caution and pretension aside, however, will enjoy themselves immensely. That enjoyment might be tempered by how much you like to think about your food. Because to appreciate the complexity of this menu, you need to either dive in with both feet, or step back and try to figure out what’s going on. If you try to do both, you’ll drive yourself crazy.
This is not to damn the culinary creations of Chef Brian Howard with faint praise, but only to point out that there’s a lot going on here, both in your glass and on your plate. “Simple” is not in Howard’s vocabulary. With this long-awaited opening in the heart of Chinatown, he’s thrown down a gauntlet among the pho parlors and noodle shops, and immediately complicated our relationship to this three-mile long, pan-Pacific island of good eats. In essence, he’s flipped the script and invaded Chinatown, leveraging some of its food cred in the process. Some suburbanites will no doubt be intimidated (foreign tongues, odd alphabets, nail and massage parlors are everywhere), but once they enter the door of this very of-the-moment American gastropub, those fears will melt away and the fun will begin.
The menu seems simple enough, and begins in the most basic way: with house-baked bread and butter. If you’re the sort who reflexively grabs the bread and starts munching away, you’ll have nothing to complain about. But if you’re the thoughtful type, you will notice the yeasty release of aromas, butter at the correct (soft) temperature, and just the right amount of bite to your slice. Clearly, someone in the kitchen is doing more than just tossing some dinner rolls on the table. This attention to detail informs most of the menu, but some of those details will, by turns, overwhelm and underwhelm you. The trick is navigating the ingredients. Items like raw lamb tossed with toasted sesame, apple and walnut taste little of those things, and raw hamachi “schmaltz” atop a crispy cracker does not deliver the promised flavors of Meyer lemon, grilled scallions and lychee. Not that these aren’t well-executed, but they don’t pop, and popping is what this menu aims to do. Aside from an artichoke (with white bean hummus, charred tomatillo, herbs and pine nuts) that needed some trimming and seasoning, few items promise more than they deliver. The rest of the menu promises a lot — and delivers even more.
Howard’s charcuterie is not yet made in-house, but he sources top-quality items, and his seasonal pickles are fabulous. Just as good are his oysters (one type, kumais, when we had them) topped three different ways — with pineapple mignonette, cucumber granité, and a yuzu pearl. If there’s a better way to slurp oysters in summer, I haven’t found it. The Chinatown Clams Casino — baked with uni hollandaise — is so rich it ought to come with its own calorie count, but it’s also fusion food at its finest. Like we said, nothing is simple — roasted beets come under a tangle of endive, pea shoots, shaved fennel, sheep’s milk blue cheese and “bird seed” (black sesame seeds), whew! — but everything has its place. I’m told by general manager John Anthony that the Butcher Wings with burnt tomato and ’nduja (think spreadable salami) vinaigrette are a hot item, but the heat escaped the order I was given. That was the last misfire, though, in a bevy of beautiful plates that followed: beef cheek with bone marrow dumplings; sweetbreads with smoked bacon; firm, flavorful halibut coated with Alabama white barbecue sauce; udon noodles “Bolognese” with Taggiasche olives, citrus confit and mint. (That fusion thing again, paying further homage to the neighborhood by craftily mixing culinary metaphors.)
As you work your way through the menu, you might find yourself thinking that there’s not a main ingredient that Brian Howard doesn’t think he can complicate. (Octopus on top of a very good steak? You bet.) But if you taste carefully, and think a little harder, you see that a lot of thought went into these combinations, and by and large they work. Nowhere is this payoff more rewarding than in his Campfire Duck: gorgeous slices of duck and foie gras resting on dark, earthy shreds of wood ear mushrooms, accented by sharp bites of salted plum in a duck bone broth. It’s a dish that appears to be trying to do too much, but those flavor explosions in your mouth tell you it succeeds. This is high-wire cooking without a net, and when Howard pulls it off, the results are thrilling indeed.
Just as complicated are the cocktails — at least five ingredients each — but they’re as clever and complex as the food. The wine list matches the menu, the neighborhood, and the crowd, even if it doesn’t match what a wine snob might want to drink.
Sparrow + Wolf aims to be a game-changer. It is sleek and small, seating just 60, and smells of wood smoke — all indicia of the haute-eclectic-bistro cooking that has taken over America in the past decade. Whatever you order at this outpost of the takeover, it’ll likely be the most interesting meal you have this year.
Sparrow + Wolf
4480 Spring Mountain Road #100
Hours Sun, Mon, Wed 5-11p