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French-Asian cuisine finds an odd perch on Nob Hill
by Lisa Butterworth on Nov 22, 2006
Sparrow, the new endeavor of owner Steve Javellana and Executive Chef Terry Lynch, attempts to overcome a cursed space with interesting flavors and a creative menu.
The first thing you notice about Sparrow is the odd location. Perched atop Nob Hill in the space formerly occupied by Watergate's second incarnation, this new French-Asian restaurant is nestled in the "Dynasty"-era lobby of the Gramercy Towers, with the entrance tucked in the back of the lobby. It sits facing a concrete courtyard that cabs enter frequently, so be sure not to sit in a booth facing the windows, lest you be blinded by intermittent headlights.
Once you find Sparrow, the atmosphere is warm and inviting, if a bit nineties. The entrance opens onto a low-lit lounge, with satin covered chairs and couches, a wall of votives providing ambience. On multiple visits there was no scene to speak of; it's more of a quiet dinner destination than a see-and-be-seen hot spot. The cocktail menu ($10) offers classic drinks that crackle with creativity, indicative of the surprising flavors Lynch pairs. The Buddhadrop adds fresh verbena to the standard lemon drop, and Sparrow’s version of the mojito boasts fresh shiso and Thai basil in addition to mint.
After enjoying a drink at the bar, we were seated in a spacious booth in the restaurant, a large space with warm, if very little, lighting. The tables were covered in white linens and a Buddha statue overlooks the room. Though comfortable, it’s a large space that feels even bigger when only a few tables are occupied, despite the low ceilings.
Though I’ve heard otherwise, the service we received was fantastic. The timing was excellent, our server’s suggestions were spot on, and we were never wanting for drinks or attention.
With three of us dining, we decided to split several small plates and share two entrees. The menu of first plates is quite extensive and changes often. We were advised against the “boring” wok-fried Chinese long beans and instead went for the Summer Rolls ($10), Seared Ahi Tuna ($13) and Grilled Black Cod in White Miso Glaze ($10).
The Summer Rolls came first filled with Rock shrimp, mango and endive, with a seven spice aioli and a lime basil dipping sauce: standard, and not spectacular. Thinly sliced ahi tuna garnished with grapefruit, daikon and pinenuts came next splashed with flavorful beet and carrot juice sauces. The cod was likely my favorite dish of the night, served with shanghai bok choy and bell peppers. It melts in your mouth but watch out for the little bones. Though we didn’t try it, the Seared Foie Gras “sandwich” on brioche ($16) and the seared sea scallops with bitter melon, fermented black bean and pink peppercorn aioli ($13) were also recommended. The small plates are exactly that -- small. So if you’re going for quantity be sure to order an entrée.
The Second plates menu is more narrow. We went with the Local Halibut steamed in a nage of white wine & sake ($25) and at our server’s ebullient suggestion, the sautéed skate wing ($23). Meat eaters will surely love the Grilled ribeye of beef with miso-blue cheese rosemary sauce ($28) or the Beef cheek braised with gobo and orange ($25) but we stuck with seafood.
The Halibut arrived on a bed of couscous, pea shoots and what the menu called “end-o-summer succotash,” mostly halved cherry tomatoes. Though pleasantly presented, it was somewhat bland and the fish was a bit dry. The portion was large, plenty for one person. The skate wing made up for what the halibut lacked. It came on a pile of chile’d potatoes and wok-fried spinach -- warm and flaky and very filling. For unpicky eaters, I would suggest the six-course tasting menu ($65), which provides a bit of everything.
Sparrow’s dessert menu ($8) is where the unusual pairings really shine. Black peppercorn ice cream arrived with caramelized rosemary-skewered figs topped with a cocoa wafer. While surprisingly delicious, the pepper was no joke and we coughed our way through each bite. We couldn’t refuse the Ganache tart topped with whipped cream and warm peanut sauce and we capped the meal with a flowering pot of Dragon Lily white tea ($8), just one of Sparrow’s many tea choices.
Sparrow’s small plates provide the greatest range of flavors compared with the slightly standard second plates and it pays to be adventurous. A couple cocktails and few small plates make the undesirable location forgivable.
by Lisa Butterworth on Nov 22, 2006