Sparks lights a fire under tired old vegetarian cooking
By Davina Baum
With all the mad cowboys and fast-food nationalists singing the gospel of knowing your food, it makes sense that vegetarianism should be getting its just desserts by way of increased food awareness. Meat–whether it’s grass-fed Niman Ranch or corn-fed Anonymous Ranch–remains a staple in the American diet. However, as ravenous Americans have widened their food scope, meatless eating has ceased to be a novelty, moving from the domain of food activists into wide acceptance.
Ten years ago, a meatless request might send a kitchen scrambling for a bland plate of rice and mixed grilled vegetables that had to be doused in olive oil and salt to become palatable. If a “vegetarian” option didn’t contain chicken broth or some sort of hidden gelatin, it was surely a pasta doused in heavy cream sauce, veganism being a relatively new addition to the food lexicon. Since then, everything has changed.
California cuisine has done wonders for the vegetarian lifestyle. With an increased value placed on individual flavors and freshness, the typical restaurant patron has learned to expect interesting textures, flavor combinations from all over the globe, and tastes that sing. Fleshless cuisine–as well as eggless and dairyless cuisine–relies on individual flavors and creative combinations rather than fancy footwork in the kitchen, making vegetarian cooks tomorrow’s celebrity chefs.
But today, a vegan restaurant smack in the middle of Main Street, USA (albeit Guerneville’s Main Street–not exactly the national heartland) attracts lifelong vegetarians and dedicated carnivores alike. Patrons who on another night might enjoy a pork tenderloin or roast chicken will happily munch their way through a phyllo roulade with spinach and miso-cured tofu–which, in fact, is what my companion and I had on a recent visit to Sparks–and dedicated vegans and vegetarians can be assured that there are no animal products hidden in their risotto.
In the year that Sparks has occupied this storefront on Guerneville’s Main Street–after a six-month stint at the Inn of the Beginning in Cotati–it has proven itself a comfortable, reliable haven for people looking for a slightly upscale though decidedly unpretentious paean to the pleasures of the meatless table.
The pretension level at Sparks is so low as to be almost a detriment. A customer presented with an amuse-bouche and a $14 entrée has come to expect a slightly more formal atmosphere, but that is part of Sparks’ charm–and part of its inherent dissonance. There’s an underlying tension between the beautifully plated dishes featuring additions like rich truffle oil and the slightly shabby blue chairs and faded cloth napkins. The overall aesthetic of the space just doesn’t match up to the aesthetic of the plates, while at many more expensive restaurants, the opposite is true–which is even more disappointing.
Unidentified snapshots on the wall by the door greet customers as they come in. The restaurant closes at 9pm, but when I called ahead at 8pm on a Friday night, I was told that we would surely be accommodated even if we arrived after the witching hour. And we were: in fact, when we left a little before 10pm, customers were still dining happily.
Once seated, we were brought glasses of water garnished with a mint leaf and a slice of lemon, and the aforementioned amuse-bouche–in this case, a small plate with a mixture of Golden apples, celery, and raisins in a garlicky olive oil dressing dashed with curry. Service throughout the meal was friendly and unobtrusive.
We started off the meal with wine–a glass of sweetly dry Badger Mountain 2000 Johannesburg Reisling ($5.75) for me and a glass of well-balanced 1999 Barra of Mendocino Pinot Noir ($6) for my companion.
The wine was shortly followed by our appetizers. Rice-paper spring rolls filled with sunburst squash, apples, carrots, basil, and mint were drizzled with a mango sauce ($6.95). The colors were beautiful: the brilliantly orange julienned carrots tumbling out from their white wrappers, the peachy-hued mango sauce suavely trickled over. The dish was cool and crisp and the tangy sauce contrasted nicely with the lightly steamed carrots, though something–perhaps the filling–was overly spiced, the flavor of coriander masking that of the vegetables.
The phyllo roulade ($6.95) won me over at first glance, because it was garnished with a beautiful sprig of lavender. It tasted good, too–the nicely herbed and flaky-crispy phyllo encasing firm miso-cured tofu (approximating the consistency of feta) and tender spinach.
Our entrées continued to tempt the eye but didn’t win over the palate. A spinach and herb polenta with pesto, caramelized onions, and carrots ($10.95) was a riotous combination of colors, the yellow polenta flecked with green and sitting on a richly red marinara sauce. But the polenta tasted bland, and the marinara sauce didn’t go the distance in perking up the dish.
The morel and corn risotto ($13.95) was rich and comforting. The truffle oil sprinkled over it added a luxurious richness, and the morels shone through with their trademark nutty earthiness. Lightly steamed broccoli added contrasting color and texture. The dish would be hard-pressed to explain its risotto moniker, though. The familiar pearly, creamy grains of arborio rice were nowhere to be found; the dish was more of a porridge than a risotto.
Despite how full we were, desserts have to be sampled in a food review. So with you, the reader, in mind, I dug my spoon into the apricot upside-down cake ($5.50), a moist, richly spiced cake topped (or bottomed) with fruit that had stewed in its own juices. It was accompanied by a scoop of cinnamon soy ice cream. With the dessert, we drank a Barra of Mendocino muscat ($3.25)–less cloyingly sweet than most muscats, with a tangy fizz. Along with our check came small bites of palate-cleansing crystallized ginger and a big cocoa-macadamia nut cookie that accompanied us home.
It’s not only the food that makes Sparks a phenomenon; it’s also the philosophy. Run by five locals, the restaurant has a grass-roots business model that embraces community spirit. From using local organic produce to paying their staff above minimum wage, Sparks works with a commitment to be a sustainable and progressive business–in farming and in support of the community.
Furthering the idea of food as community celebration, Sparks offers seasonal gala dinners like the recent summer solstice celebration, which featured a seven-course gourmet organic experience for $35 (beverages and gratuity excluded). In addition, an array of cooking classes (see below) seeks to train the novice chef in the ways of the good life, the organic life, the meatless life. It’s a great way to participate in Sparks’ own little slice of revolution.
For information on Sparks’ classes and to reserve a spot, call the restaurant at 707.869.8206 or e-mail [email protected]. Classes must be reserved and prepaid. Classes are usually $65 (discounted if you sign up for an entire series).
July 8 and 9: Appetizers, soups, and salads July 15 and 16: Tofu and tempeh cookery July 22 and 23: Vegan desserts July 29 and 30: Ethnic cooking Aug. 5 and 6: Mexican cuisine Aug. 12 and 13: Cooking with chocolate Aug. 19 and 20: Thai cuisine Aug. 26 and 27: Wine and food pairing
16278 Main St., Guerneville. Dinner, Thursday- Sunday, 5:30-9pm; brunch, Saturday-Sunday, 10am-3pm. 707.869.8206.
From the July 4-10, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.