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High-flying Bird

Cafe Sparrow
Robert Scheer

Bird's Eye View: Cafe Sparrow's executive chef, Jeff Heicksen, offers venison sirloin with port ginger demiglaze to his restaurant's peckish patrons.

With a great gastronomic track record, Cafe Sparrow continues to amaze aficionados and newcomers alike

By Christina Waters

ALWAYS CELEBRATED FOR ITS creative salads--long before the days of baby greens and Caesars--Cafe Sparrow has been all grown up for quite a few years now. With the appealing wine list and depth of dinner entrées carved out by owners Bob and Julie Montague, the Sparrow delivers a full range of contemporary dining encounters. So satisfying was the meal three of us enjoyed last week that I'm pressed to find things to criticize.

I suppose I could grumble that my portion of tender, rare venison was too large, a bit daunting on the plate. Or I could quibble that I actually needed to request a wine menu. Perhaps chintz tablecloths and dried flower arrangements wouldn't have been my first choice in decoration. But these would be inconsequential asides. Our meal was wonderful from opening salads to final desserts. What a pleasure to find a favorite dining room as good as remembered.

The regular menu is still long on the famed salads, as well as a lineup of red meat entrées, all of which include choice of soup or green salad. But true temptation lies with the nightly specials list, where last week we were confronted by duck breast with passion fruit, blackened sea bass, fresh local halibut en papillote, jumbo prawn scampi, venison with porcini sauce, poulet in Dijon cream--and it went on.

We took advantage of the many half- bottles on the menu to sample two wines--a jammy Georis merlot 1993 ($19) and a rare treat from Oregon, Domaine Drouhin's 1994 pinot noir ($22). Francese bread with unsalted butter got us started while the wines began expanding into full dazzle.

The evening's soup, a carrot curry, was pleasant, though it lacked some seasoning catalyst to unite the flavors. We all loved the salads, mine a classic Caesar ($2 extra) with thinly sliced baguette croutons, Lucy's a glorious butter lettuce and balsamic vinaigrette affair that we consumed to the last visible trace.

In true bistro fashion, Cafe Sparrow designs entrée plates that can stand alone without crying out for side-dish enhancement. In fact, each entrée's accompanying sampler of fresh, local vegetables is one of the house secret weapons. Cubes of clove-scented beets, steamed asparagus, al dente carrots feisty with garlic, fresh fava beans, tender roast red potatoes topped with butter--we were enchanted by the presentation. And this was in addition to each dinner's main item.

Katya had ordered the fresh halibut, presented exquisitely moist, almost creamy in its parchment envelope and flavored by accompanying leeks, tomato and cream ($18.50). Lucy's Pierre entrée ($15.95) featured a sauté of tender and light chicken livers laced with garlic and served on a bed of warm apples and bacon, finished with crème fraiche. Never a liver fan, I was humbled by how good this dish was. Cafe Sparrow, it turns out, has a cult built around this chicken liver creation. And now I know why, I thought, as I actually found myself enjoying what has long been the only foodstuff I avoid.

My venison filet arrived rare as requested and arranged into plump slices ($18.50). Buttery and flavorful, the meat had been joined by slices of fresh porcini, some sweet braised shallots and the musky bite of green peppercorns. It was sublime with the amazing pinot noir, which was evolving into a complex work of art.

We felt pampered. And satisfied. Lucy, who's recently become devoted to breakfasts and lunches at Sparrow, was adamant in her praise--"This place is really an A-plus." She got no argument from us, none of whom could recall the last time we found ourselves saying, "These are really lovely beets."


Cafe Sparrow

Address: 8042 Soquel Drive, Aptos
Phone: 688-6238
Price: Moderate to expensive
Chef: Jeff Heicksen
Ambiance: ** 1/2 California country inn
Service: *** Low key, knowledgeable
Cuisine: ***1/2 Attention to details, quality ingredients
A local landmark, this cafe thrives on top quality, expert presentation and fresh, bold flavors--a gem

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay


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From the May 8-14, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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