Drinking Houston: Monica Pope’s Sparrow Bar + Cookshop

Monica Pope’s t’afia was one of the best restaurants in Houston, and the accolades it received were deserved. Written up in quite a few national magazines, Monica Pope helped to put Houston on the culinary map. She may not have single-handedly changed Houston, but she certainly contributed. After t’afia, there was Beaver’s Icehouse, which helped to spawn the craft cocktail culture in Houston by launching quite a few now-famous Houston bartenders.

But Monica Pope wasn’t satisfied, I guess, so she shut down t’afia and retooled it a couple weeks later as Sparrow Bar + Cookshop. It opened in mid-August, but I have already been there a couple times, once on August 15, the day after it opened, and then just a couple of weeks ago. It’s a good place to start our series on drinking in Houston because this place really did help start it all.

It was about five years ago when my wife and I first went there, and I ordered a couple of their specialty cocktails. I didn’t know anything about cocktails back then. I thought a cocktail was something one gobbled down in an effort to get so drunk that the cocktails themselves stopped tasting bad. Only at that point could one actually have fun. But t’afia showed me that cocktails could be interesting. When made from quality ingredients and mixed in interesting proportions, a cocktail could be as interesting as food, playing with all of the different tastes.

This last time, I had to start out with the number nine. We can call it whatever we want because the restaurant refuses to name their cocktails anymore. Instead, as you can see from the menu, they just number the cocktail list of the day. Again, it’s their emphasis on fresh ingredients that makes it viable and interesting. The menu will change constantly because the ingredients will change. If they can’t get good papayas, they take it off the menu. It makes sense.

I am a fan of smoky mezcal, so I had to try the number nine. It’s a mixture of Sombra mezcal, raspberry puree, grapefruit, mint, and soda. What an interesting combination it was. The mezcal shined through everything and filled my nose before the drink ever hit my lips. The taste was not all it should have been, though. It tasted like mezcal and soda with a hint of fruit rather than a fruity drink with a hint of mezcal, which would have been better. Even though I don’t like really sweet drinks, when a drink is filled with soda, I feel like it needs more sweetness. This one didn’t have it. Still, I enjoyed it immensely, especially because of the mezcal. We need more drinks that make use of smoky ingredients.

Then I moved to the number one, which included pisco, Lillet, sloe gin, ginger syrup, papaya puree, rosemary, and lime. This one was better. The sweetness was right on, and I loved how the fruit puree mixed with the Lillet and pisco. The ginger didn’t come through, but that was alright. The drink was still balanced well.

Sparrow is a good place to go, especially when it is cooler out, and you can enjoy the patio. Try the almonds and olives with your drink, too. They’re marvelous. Be aware, however, that most of the drinks are on the sweeter, fruity side. It’s not a cocktail bar, after all; it’s more of a restaurant that happens to have good drinks.

And yes, they’re good.

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