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[whitespace] Cafe Sparrow
Culinary Opening: Pastry chef Maya Churchill and sous-chef Aubrey Burris stand ready to please diners at Cafe Sparrow.

Flight of Fancy

Culinary sophistication makes Cafe Sparrow a particularly welcoming dinnertime venue in Aptos Village

By Christina Waters

ALTHOUGH IT HAS OUTGROWN its origins as a "ladies-who-lunch" fortress of Laura Ashley, Cafe Sparrow still makes a feminine visual statement. Doilies, pastel tablecloths and avian imagery make this a comfort zone in which to sample bountiful soups, sandwiches and salads.

At lunch last week, we enjoyed a well-made omelet, though the shrimp with dill sandwich proved a lackluster affair of soggy croissant and more than one shrimp shell. We fared quite well, however, at a recent dinner, when the blackboard specials included pepper-crusted ono fillet ($23.95) and something my companion simply had to have involving a thick pork chop topped with brie ($19.95).

The evening soup of three beans arrived along with a split order of sensational bleu cheese salad topped with house-made sun-dried tomatoes and sensuous artichoke hearts ($9.95).

Before our thoughts turned to food, however, they encountered the listing of wines by the glass. Sparrow's fine cellar is always tempting, and our choices of Keenan Merlot '98 ($7.75) and Mazzocco Cabernet Sauvignon ($7.25) proved beautifully drinkable, fine partners for the flavors to come. Along with two breads--including a notable francese--we enjoyed more unsalted butter than our cardiologists would have liked but immediately canceled out any negative impact (at least to our way of thinking) by copious sips of the excellent red wines.

"It makes my mouth very happy," Di admitted, crunching into the long sheaf of romaine heart glistening with balsamic vinaigrette and strewn with bleu cheese. The salad's earthy elegance somehow reminded me of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. The concentrated flavor of tomatoes worked well against the creaminess of tender artichoke hearts. It was such a spectacular salad, visually and flavorwise, that it--along with the wonderful soup--could have made a fine meal.

Our waiter's perfect timing, and nonhovering attentiveness, added to the warmth of the meal. The smoky perfume of black beans provided the rich, bottom note to the fine soup-- Cafe Sparrow is, in my opinion, one of the last places in the area still devoted to soup du jour excellence. "Like a cabin in the woods with an earthen floor," was Di's comment on the soup. Metaphors and sunset filled our sensibilities.

The entrees dazzled--exotic edible landscapes, each steamed with bold aromas. A bouquet of fresh sage perched next to Di's thick, juicy pork loin chop, glazed seductively with rich brie. The lean pork sat on a square of polenta, alongside long green beans and a sauté of colorful summer squashes.

My 'ono dish was loaded with finesse, from the two thick medallions of tender reef fish, lightly sauced in a peppercorn-laced beurre blanc, to a crisp "feather" of olive-oil toasted baguette, sliced thin as stained glass. The luscious fish arrived on a crimson mesa of basmati rice pilaf studded with tomatoes and kalamata olives, with more of those seasonal green beans.

Truly gorgeous dishes, they offered what every restaurant would kill for: they tasted as good as they looked. And then some. "OK, so maybe it's not everyday fare," Di admitted, eyes closed so she could savor the earthy partnership of pork and brie. "It's indulgence."

We like indulging ourselves. And unlike the cloying bread pudding (overwhelmed by a sugary, lemon sauce) we'd sampled at the previous week's lunch, Cafe Sparrow's crème caramel was satiny perfection ($5.75). Sided with a fan of sliced, ripe pears and dusted lightly with powdered sugar, it was a lovely custard, barely sweet and topped by a restrained glaze of caramel. Served on a plate of pale green glass, to match the mint leaf accompaniment, it made a fine foil for that final cup of espresso.

Cafe Sparrow
Address: 8042 Soquel Dr, Aptos
Phone: 688.6238
Hours: Lunch 11am-2pm Mon-Thu; dinner 5:30-9pm, weekends till 10pm; breakfast 8am-noon Fri-Sat; Sun brunch 8am-2pm
Service: ** Smart, attentive and willing to be flexible
Ambience: ** Many patrons seem to like the frilly, feminine décor that fills the cottage interior
Cuisine: ** 1/2 Uneven in terms of kitchen skills, the dishes are always pretty, and dinnertime fare can be excellent; freshest ingredients
Overall: Dinners deliver the culinary goods, showcasing seasonal flavors and exciting concept; lunches remain tea-room standards.

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From the August 8-15, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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