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.
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.
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.
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.
Bistro in Bryn Mawr, Minneapolis
230 S Cedar Lake Rd
Minneapolis, MN 55405
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.
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE PRICE: $3-14 for small plates; $8-17 for pizza, sandwiches and large plates