REVIEW: The neighborhood venue Sparks offers a memorable meal with a hearth-based twist.
Why mince words? Anyone dining at Sparks who skips the hummus -- scratch that, the spectacular hummus -- needs to have their head examined, pronto.
It's far more complex than the average supermarket chickpea purée. Smooth and supple, with a potent garlic kick and teasing traces of tahini, it's garnished with a splash of fruity olive oil and a shake of pungent smoked paprika. Chef/co-owner Jonathan Hunt picked up the winning formula while cooking at a Greek restaurant in Zimbabwe, and the addictive results were born to be liberally scooped up by wedges of warm, chewy house-baked pita. Just thinking about it is enough to make a person lightheaded. And hungry.
The pitas are pretty special, too. Possessed of an appealingly sturdy pull, the white-flour pocket breads are baked in small batches all day. Hunt uses them as a foundation for a handful of sandwiches, stuffing them like so many Thanksgiving cornucopia with delicious fixings, including feisty house-made lamb sausage and oven-roasted, pepper-tossed pulled chicken. They're big, they're sloppy, they're paired with a crunchy slaw, and they're terrific.
Like nearly every dish on the menu, the pitas are baked in the restaurant's wood-burning oven, which is also the source of the Sparks name, inspired by the small-scale fireworks popping and crackling inside that glowing hearth. Having loved the experience of cooking with wood earlier in his career, Hunt wanted to own a restaurant where a stone-hearth oven was the kitchen's centerpiece and primary cooking instrument.
He picked one up on the used market -- it had been broken in at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Sacramento, Calif. -- and began fueling it with slow- but hot-burning red oak.
It's a great gimmick for hanging a menu on, especially when it's as eclectic as this one. Naturally, there are pizzas. The crust is a bit of a hybrid, thin but not cracker-like, and not particularly crisp but not wildly chewy, either. What it does have is a lot of olive oil, which imbues it with a deeply golden cast. Turns out it's an effective platform for some uncomplicated topping combinations, starting with a roasted roma tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and other topshelf building blocks; the tastiest combo pairs colorful cherry tomatoes with pretty ribbons of prosciutto.
Hunt adds a half-dozen rustic, ever-changing entrees at dinner, using that oak to insinuate a bit of smoke into the proceedings. The roast chicken is a delight, its skin crisp and irresistible, the meat melt-in-your-mouth juicy. The delicacy of Wisconsin farm-raised trout plays nicely against the big flavors of feta and green olives. Another memorable turn was a thick, juicy pork chop, seared into a semisweet caramel on the outside and rich porkiness inside, paired with an unbeatable combination of toothy cannellini beans, chewy Swiss chard and a gentle tomato broth; truly, a tailor-made summer supper.
Some attention, please
But the entrees are where it most feels as if the cooking staff hasn't quite mastered the oven's vagaries. A beef tenderloin, fork-tender and bursting with a bold, juicy flavor, was sublime on one visit, but dull, tough and oversalted on another. Gritty sea scallops, nearly raw inside but entrancingly golden outside, seemed to have their naturally sweet flavor seared right out of them. Still, with less than six months of tinkering under their aprons, the kitchen crew has barely tapped into the oven's vast potential, and anyone who has dined at Hunt's Al Vento knows that the man can cook.
Other dishes were similarly uneven. For every lovely salad -- including a fetching toss of arugula, pea shoots and bacon, and a beaut that combined that fabulous pulled chicken with chives, onions, pink olives and garden-fresh romaine -- there are vegetarian tostadas and tacos so drearily executed that they could be punch lines in a vegan knock-knock joke. It's easy to fall head over heels for the bulgogi tacos, jazzed with spicy kimchee and crunchy radishes. Sunday brunch's limited menu wouldn't lure anyone to drive across town, but it more than manages to please locals in search of a nosh, particularly the tender, fresh-baked biscuits smothered in a hearty mushroom gravy and the pizza topped with scrambled eggs and sausage.
The dessert menu's most noticeable attribute is its brevity. Fruit crisps, baked in cute single-serving skillets, didn't impress until peach season rolled around, then they totally clicked, hitting all the requisite texture and flavor notes. There's a warm chocolate cake that doesn't particularly stand out, but it's fine. The stars of the show, without question, are Eric Weed's first-rate gelatos and sorbets, and they're priced to move: A single scoop is just $2, and three scoops are $5.
Dining with a view
For some improvisational dinner theater, park it at the counter (and pretend that the too-small stools are comfortable) and watch Hunt and his crew cook for their clientele out of a single oven. The small-scale surroundings are modest and attractive, but the best seats in the house are outside, on the well-appointed sidewalk patio.
Like Rinata, the Uptown Minneapolis favorite that Hunt and business partner Amor Hantous opened a few years back, their Bryn Mawr newbie is the kind of easygoing establishment anyone would hope to discover in their ZIP code. That certainly includes Hunt, who moved to the neighborhood about a year ago. On a walk, he happened to stop into the coffeehouse that preceded Sparks. "I introduced myself to the owner, and we sparked up a conversation," recalls Hunt. "He told me he had to close his business, and here we are."
Ah, the power of serendipity. Oh, and can you please pass the hummus?
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib