Sparks in Bryn Mawr, Minneapolis

Sparks in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Chef Jon Hunt’s Rinata topped our list of five overlooked Minneapolis restaurants last summer, and though Sparks, his latest venture with business partner Amor Hantous, launched with a similar lack of fanfare earlier this spring, it’s unlikely to stay a secret for long. Blending seamlessly into the leafy, family-oriented Bryn Mawr neighborhood in Minneapolis, Sparks is wide open — literally, with its garage-door-like front windows raised in the warm weather — to welcome customers of all ages with its simple yet satisfying wood-fired dishes. While the wide-ranging menu, spanning Western Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Mexico, isn’t without its flaws, its strongest dishes will leave you thinking about them long after you leave.

Small plates comprise a good third of Sparks’ menu, and the best is the least obvious starter. The bulgogi tacos ($8 for two) marry the fermented fire of kimchi with tender beef, crunchy vegetables, zesty salsa, and a cool drizzle of sour cream. Each order comes with two extra tortillas, but you’re not going to share, so order multiples if numerous taco fans are seated at your table. Equally strong is the Greek salad ($7), a substantial platter of crisp cucumber spears, salty feta, briny olives, and ripe tomatoes. Fresh, filling and properly dressed, the salad practically dances across your tastebuds, though cilantro-phobes may shy away from its generous sprinkle.

Hummus and Greek Salad at Sparks in Minneapolis

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

The hummus ($5) and tzatziki ($5) arrive with bowls of warm, hearty pita that are easy to swallow without the dips, but it would be a shame to ignore them. The thick, red-tinged hummus is made from cannellini beans, so while it lacks some of the nuttiness of a chickpea-based spread, the smokiness of the paprika adds another welcome dimension. The creamy tzatziki puts its garlicky-ness in the driver’s seat — awesome if you’re a garlic fan, not so much if you find its flavor to be overwhelming. But even though we’re huge fans of garlic, the Catalan garlic soup ($3 / cup, $6 / bowl) left us wanting more. The buttery crouton and soft poached egg couldn’t make up for the mild-mannered broth.

A weak broth also marred an otherwise successful mussels dish ($9), with its Spanish-inspired sofrito seasoning, but the vegan and gluten-free mushroom avocado enchiladas ($9) left no heat behind. The spice of the vegetable mixture tucked inside soft corn tortillas quickly builds up inside the mouth, but the meaty flavor of the mushrooms and the soothing avocado make it hard to stop eating. Just keep your water glass full if you order them or the chicken pocket sandwich ($9), which combines the roasted chicken from the entree list with the crunchy vegetables from the Greek salad and the kimchi from the bulgogi tacos. Stuffed inside one of those thick pitas, the messy sandwich offers a kick that would be even stronger if it were served hot rather than lukewarm.

Veggie Enchiladas at Sparks in Minneapolis

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

If you have room for more meat after those tacos, ask for the thinly sliced tenderloin steak with Bernaise and crispy potatoes ($19). Ordered medium rare, the meat arrives a perfect reddish-pink hue and toothsome texture. You don’t even need the creamy Bernaise for the beef, but you’ll want to dip the salty french-fry-cut potatoes in it. But if you’ve reached your meat maximum for the night, go for the addicting truffle asparagus pizza ($12) instead. With its almost flatbread-like crust, the pie offers a luxurious bite of fragrant truffles and fresh, lightly cooked asparagus spears. One pizza is the ideal size for two if sharing a few dishes, but if this is your only order, be selfish and savor all those slices yourself. The chicken pesto pizza ($9) seems equally promising on the menu but the lackluster sauce left us underwhelmed.

Beef Tenderloin at Sparks in Minneapolis

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

An apple crisp ($7) tempts you from the dessert section of the menu — give into it. The warm apples, so often reduced to mush in these types of dishes, retain much of their firmness, which makes them a satisfying foil to the soft scoop of gelato. Just enough sugary topping gives it the requisite caramel coating, and the subtle cinnamon flavor of the ice cream ties the dessert together. If you’d rather imbibe your calories, the beverage menu presents everything from sake and local brews on tap to a wine list from around the world.

Like the menu, the service at Sparks has its highlights and lowlights, too. Friendly waitstaff become less so when they disappear for a good part of the meal. On one occasion, our small-plate dishes remained on the table 10 minutes after we finished our starters — the bussing staff had to remove them when the entrees arrived at the table — and a long wait for the check is never welcome when you’re ready to hit to the road. But we always appreciate an open attitude toward children at the table, and with its indoor and outdoor seating, it’s easy to find a comfortable spot for families at Sparks. Come winter, though, it will be quite the squeeze.

For now, though, the bulgogi tacos and truffle pizza will continue to draw me to Sparks’ leafy patio, and if word spreads, the rest of Minneapolis may join along. Hope they made enough kimchi.

Sparks
Bistro in Bryn Mawr, Minneapolis
★★½☆ (Good)

230 S Cedar Lake Rd
Minneapolis, MN 55405
612.259.8943
HOURS:
Mon-Sat 11am-10pm
Sun 10am-9pm
CHEF / OWNERS: Jonathan Hunt and Amor Hantous
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: No, but you can call up to 30 minutes in advance to put your name on the waiting list.
BAR: Full
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE PRICE: $3-14 for small plates; $8-17 for pizza, sandwiches and large plates

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Jill Lewis

The great-granddaughter of an Eastern European Jewish baker, Jill Lewis cannot escape her genetic predisposition to carbs. Her love of baked goods, wine, cheese and chocolate may not come in handy for her day job as a Twin Cities PR professional, but it proves infinitely helpful for her gigs as a contributing writer for The Heavy Table and the co-author of the Cheese and Champagne blog. A former resident of Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin and suburban Washington, D.C., Jill now lives with her husband, two young sons and cat in St. Louis Park.

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8 Comments

  1. Just don’t go there expecting to grab a couple of drinks with a friend. They’ll kick you out if you don’t order food.

  2. morchella05/16/2012Reply

    PPC: The wine and beer license for Sparks requires that 70% of their sales come from food. So, it’s not that they don’t want you to drink beer, it’s that they don’t want to lose their license.

  3. I was under the impression that the 70% requirement takes into account a business’ overall sales, not sales on a customer-by-customer basis. Turning away paying customers seems at best rude and at worst a poor business decision. Some people like to scope out a joint to get a feel for the atmosphere before committing to bringing their family or a large party. And some people (ahem) live or work very close by and would like to maybe see if a new neighborhood business is worthy of repeat business.

    Some people (ahem) will never be going back.

  4. morchella05/16/2012Reply

    PPC: Yes, as someone who lives 2 blks away I do understand the frustration with just wanting to grab a beer. There’s always Cuppa Java!

  5. Correction: they don’t have a full bar–beer and wine only.

    Also, fwiw, although I haven’t cared for their enchiladas (cited above) the roast chicken (not above) is typically excellent.

  6. yeahyeahyeah05/18/2012Reply

    Some places in Mpls simply can not serve drinks unless food is ordered. At least this is what I have been told at other establishments. I believe the new Blue Door (not open yet) is one such resturant with this restriction.

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