The moment I walked through the door, I knew I was someplace special.
From the website:
Little Sparrow came about easily enough; the old building at the corner of 3rd and Main had been vacant, and a bit of an eyesore, for more than fifteen years. Once the old Santa Ana cafe, it was a space that begged, literally pleaded, with many dreamers to take on the challenge. Having seen many an old space with great bones become new again in San Francisco, New York, and Paris the owners imagined a concept that was neighborhood cafe by day, fine dining bistro by night… Dinner service at Little Sparrow is fine dining in a semi-casual California bistro. The dining room is light, open, and intimate. Great for a romantic dinner or night out with friends and family.
Dinner Service at Little Sparrow Cafe, September 14, 2013
Beautiful, isn’t it?
The vibe. There’s big, pretentious, formal fine dining. (That kind with white gloves and people whose sole job is to verify ice level in a water glass). Then there’s small, intimate, and casual fine dining. It encompasses a kind of cozy I once felt in the fifth arrondissement in Paris. Perfectly lit, cozy chairs, nothing but two tops. A place where one can sit alone, look out the window, and watch people go by. Little Sparrow (name partially inspired by Edith Piaf) falls into the latter. And because of that, there’s an obvious synergy here that isn’t felt in the bigger operations. Everyone is pleasant, from the hostess to the owner. The temperature is right, the music fitting. And the food… the food is good without being stuffy; one can actually identify the ingredients on the menu, and find them in season at a local farmers’ market. When I have my own place someday, this is exactly what I’d want to go for.
The Owner. Somewhere between the chef-presented amuse bouche (a beautiful campagne pate with fresh fig and whole mustard) and the first course (one order each of almost everything on the start list), owner Bruce Marsh stopped by our table of six to say hello. By now, it was getting dark and the seats were filling up. But Bruce stood around long enough to share these tidbits: Bruce met his wife in New York while she was in food studies at NYU, and he was working in advertising. Together, they shared an insatiable appetite for food and travel. The Little Sparrow Cafe evolved from a school project business plan. The couple chose Santa Ana because this is his wife’s hometown. Many spaces were scoped before landing on the corner of 3rd and Main. Neither Bruce or his wife had experience in owning/operating any previous restaurants. They were really excited once they realized that OC Register Food Critic Brad Johnson had been in to eat their food.
I’m happy to see that an owner was at the restaurant on a Saturday night, and making an effort to talk to his customers. And the biggest takeaway note for me was: it is possible to jump in with no experience and make an honest go of it.
The food. In our party of six, we ordered just about everything on the menu and then shared it all. If there’s one gold star, it’s the steamed mussels. And you get a heaping bowl of it, with some grilled bread to mop it up. Cooked in shallots, garlic, fennel, and piquillo peppers, then finished with a bottle of sour beer and a bit of creme fraiche, the resulting broth is delicate, aromatic, and just a hair briny. In a nutshell, it’s the perfect example of Parisian style bistro food that’s modified for the Southern California table. GENIUS.
Unfortunately, there were others in my party that disagreed, thinking that the mussels were “bland” and “not garlicky enough,” and this is where I get to tell them that they’re wrong.
As a Chef, how does it feel to stare your critic in the face, and listen to their feedback?
Too often, diners goes into a restaurant without regard for the overall concept, and then complain that the flavor profiles aren’t to their linking. Newsflash, people. You’re in a Parisian concept; embrace the Parisian style. It’s refined, restrained, and delicate. If you want your pungent garlic and spicy chorizos, go down the street to the little Tapas joint. I applaud the Chef for coming out to the table, asking how we liked our food, and then not punching us when a few of us complained about the mussels. And I really want to know… what was he thinking at that precise moment?
Screenshot of the Little Sparrow’s Facebook page, where they advertised their scallop special. And that’s me, promising to order some when I came in.
Sadly, we didn’t have as much luck when we veered off the menu to order the seared scallops. Served with white bean puree and braised baby fennel, the dish was beautifully colored and artfully plated. Unfortunately, instead of being light, sweet and juicy on the inside, these were gummy, gray, and dense. [I’m ducking now, please don’t throw tomatoes at me.] I suspect the kitchen was working with wet scallops instead of dry scallops, and as a result, these babies were doomed before they got off the boat. (The scallops were not advertised as dry or diver.)
When scallops are wet, it doesn’t matter that they’re “U10,” which really is just a size indicator, not quality. And because they were so dense and packed with phosphates (or other preservatives), they were still cold in the center once the edges were seared. If this were my kitchen, and I was tied to cooking with the wet scallops I had delivered, I’d bread those suckers and fry ’em good. By then, no one can tell what they used to be. (More about my scallops snobbishness here.) I’d also charge more if I had to, but I’d definitely splurge with my next supply order.
The Chef. My initial thought was that when we’d get our restaurant up and running, I’d be in the back of house, developing the menu and getting the food out. But the more I think about it, the more I’m realizing that perhaps the better thing to do is hire a chef, bring him into the team, and trust him to execute the vision. Specifically, if Chef Eric Samaniego is the brainchild behind the crispy sweetbreads (with English pea puree, bacon and onions), or the grilled heritage pork chop (with beluga lentils, sofrito and blood oranges) I had on Saturday night, I have to commend the owners for getting it right. If and when I get a chance, I’d give him a high five, and then I’d ask him this. What inspires you? How does it feel to create your own menu? How often will it change? Will you take an apprentice? (Kinda serious about that last question.)
The drinks. The drinks were well crafted, unique, varied, and beautifully presented on vintage trays. For example, I had a Trinidad Sour: Angostura, lemon, simple, egg. And the husband started with a Corpse Reviver # 2: Gin, Lillet, lemon, Luxardo Triplum, absinthe. There were many that followed, so I won’t list them all. My only question here is, what the hell happened to Joe?!
Should you give Little Sparrow a visit? If you value the ambiance of a European bistro, aren’t tight-ass about your dollars, and have a sophisticated cocktail palate, yes, absolutely. Go here now before it fills up because soon, it’s going to be hard to get in. For an authentic experience, avoid the food paparazzi crowd.
The bottom line is that we’ve needed a place like this in our neighborhood. A little corner cafe that’s approachable. Friendly. Where the food’s good, but the cocktails might be better. I’m thrilled the owners had the guts to make their dream a reality, and the fact that such a place came into Santa Ana. It tells me that as a community, we might ready for something notable.
P.S. It was going to happen, eventually. I’m writing my first (of likely many) commentaries, which I loosely define as “purposeful notes and observations about an establishment with the explicit intent of honing the vision for my own future establishment.” Let’s say that reconnaissance is a big part of my due diligence, and this is how I’m going to keep track of it.