Why mince words? Anyone dining at Sparks who skips the spectacular hummus needs to have their head examined.
It's far more complex than the average supermarket chickpea purée. Smooth and supple, with a potent garlic kick and teasing traces of tahini, it's garnished with a splash of fruity olive oil and a shake of pungent smoked paprika. Chef/co-owner Jonathan Hunt picked up the winning formula while cooking at a Greek restaurant in Zimbabwe, and the addictive results were born to be liberally scooped up by wedges of warm, chewy house-baked pita. Just thinking about it is enough to make a person lightheaded. And hungry.
Those pitas are pretty special, too. Possessed of an appealingly sturdy pull, the white-flour pocket breads are baked in small batches all day. Hunt uses them as a foundation for a handful of sandwiches, stuffing them with delicious fixings, including feisty house-made lamb sausage and oven-roasted, pepper-tossed pulled chicken. They're big, they're sloppy, they're paired with a crunchy slaw, and they're terrific.
The restaurant's wood-burning oven is the source of the Sparks name. Having loved the experience of cooking with wood earlier in his career, Hunt wanted to own a restaurant where a stone-hearth oven was the kitchen's centerpiece and primary cooking instrument. He picked one up on the used market and began fueling it with slow- but hot-burning red oak.
It's a great gimmick on which to hang an eclectic menu. Naturally, there are pizzas. The crust is a bit of a hybrid, thin but not cracker-like, and not particularly crisp but not wildly chewy, either. What it does have is a lot of olive oil, which imbues it with a deeply golden cast. Turns out it's an effective platform for some uncomplicated topping combinations, starting along the lines of a roasted roma tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella; the tastiest combo pairs colorful cherry tomatoes with pretty ribbons of prosciutto.
Hunt adds a half-dozen rustic, ever-changing entrees at dinner, using that oak to insinuate a bit of smoke into the proceedings. The roast chicken is a delight, its skin crisp and irresistible, the meat melt-in-your-mouth juicy. The delicacy of Wisconsin farm-raised trout plays nicely against the big flavors of feta and green olives. Another memorable turn was a thick, juicy pork chop, seared into semisweet caramel on the outside and rich porkiness inside, and paired with toothy cannellini beans, chewy Swiss chard and a gentle tomato broth; truly, a tailor-made summer supper.
But the entrees are where it most feels as if the cooking staff hasn't quite mastered the oven's vagaries. A beef tenderloin was sublime on one visit but disappointingly dull, tough and oversalted on another. Gritty sea scallops seemed to have their naturally sweet flavor seared right out them. Still, the kitchen crew has barely tapped into the oven's vast potential, and anyone who has dined at Hunt's Al Vento knows that the man can cook.
Other dishes were similarly uneven. For every lovely salad -- including a beaut that combined that fabulous pulled chicken with chives, onions, pink olives and garden-fresh romaine -- there are drearily executed vegetarian tostadas and tacos. But it's easy to fall for the bulgogi tacos, jazzed with spicy kimchee and crunchy radishes.
For some improvisational dinner theater, park it at the counter and watch Hunt and his crew cook for their clientele out of a single oven. The small-scale surroundings are modest and attractive, but the best seats in the house are outside, on the well appointed sidewalk patio.
Like Rinata, the Uptown favorite that Hunt and business partner Amor Hantous opened a few years back, their Bryn Mawr newbie is the kind of easygoing establishment anyone would hope to discover in their ZIP code.
Where: 230 S. Cedar Lake Rd., Mpls., 612-259-8943, www.sparksmpls.com. Prices: Apps, pizzas, sandwiches $10 and under; entrees $11-$20. Recommended: Hummus, chicken and merguez (lamb sausage) sandwiches, bulgogi tacos, pizzas, roast chicken, gelato.