Like Grandma Said!
It starts with Grandma. Like so many good stories, this one begins with a grown-up recalling fond memories of a grandparent. Without even realizing it, back when he was a boy, his experiences with Grandma would shape his entire professional life - his dreams, his goals, his accomplishments - all of it.
Such starts the story of Sparrow + Wolf, perhaps the most anticipated restaurant opening in Las Vegas not only this year but in the last three years. The newly opened Chinatown eatery is the brainchild of Brian Howard. The man has always been on the shortlist of best Vegas-based chefs, but now he’s turned his attention to building a brand, and perhaps becoming a restaurateur.
And without Grandma, none of this probably ever happens. Howard, 35, grew up in Detroit. His family was poor. They lived on processed food but for a few special days a year. These were the days Grandma changed Howard’s way of thinking.
Howard recalls, “For me, growing up, my biggest food memories were from my grandmother. She cooked on the holidays and grew her own vegetables outside of her trailer. She was my influence. That whole bringing people together - good music, record player going, big sprawl of food, entertaining people - I think everybody has this idea - what are you doing it for? Right before I opened this restaurant, I realized that was the reason I was doing it.”
How Chef Howard went from listening to the record player and eating fresh tomatoes in Grandma’s trailer to shepherding a restaurant that was written about by outlets like Vice even before it opened is unique, to say the least, and it all plays a part in what he’s doing right now.
There were the typical busboy and short-order cook jobs. Howard was only 20 when he moved to Las Vegas. He held a number of positions, pocketing different skills from each place along the way. At Nick’s, a classic Vegas style Italian joint with a mafia presence, he saw not just old-school Vegas mobsters, but old-school Vegas hospitality. At Seven Nightclub, he furthered his French cooking roots while also grabbing some knowledge from the sushi master who worked there. At Tsunami, he picked up his first sous chef gig and focused on leadership. At Lutece, he learned how to push his own limits, working in the shadow of legendary chef Andre Soltner, who, while still helming the iconic New York restaurant, set the tone for Vegas as well.
From there he studied under other masters. Kerry Simon at Cathouse, Thomas Keller at the Bouchon group, and eventually David Myers, where Howard received a lot of press as the Executive Chef at Comme Ca in The Cosmopolitan.
The last few years have also been filled with false starts for Howard. Chinatown was a rumored destination. Then it was a grand downtown project that grabbed buzz. He raised money multiple times and finally, when he landed, it was back to his original destination. Says Howard of Chinatown, “It brought me full circle to do what I’m supposed to be doing I think. If I opened Downtown, I don’t think I would have been as busy since day 1... There’s so much great food here on this street. Everybody comes here to eat.”
It’s swank. Walk into Sparrow + Wolf, and you wonder if, you are still in Chinatown let alone Las Vegas. It’s already become a hot, late-night joint for industry workers after they clock out. Upon entering, you are greeted by John Anthony, one of the most gregarious front of house men in all of the city. He makes you feel beyond welcome, like he was already expecting you. Anthony and Howard have worked together for over a decade on different projects, and the chef knew, he had to have the likable Anthony as his General Manager. Howard gushes of his friend, “John and I are magic together. We have pretty much-worked side by side in our careers in Vegas. Nobody else I know works a room like that guy.”
A playlist of eclectic music - everything from Ethiopian drummers to current indie rock - plays overheard. It might not be Grandma’s record player, which Howard did try to get, but it shows yet ,even more, attention to detail.
The menu is broken down into three sections: Cured & Raw, Sharing Is..., and Up To You. Howard is influenced by a lot of cultures. He is a voracious reader, and according to him, he develops dishes quite differently than his counterparts. He states, “I don’t spend a lot of time recipe testing or trial and error or anything like that. A lot of what I do is kind of backwards from how every other chef that I know does things. I write a menu on paper, and if it sounds good, then I’ll actually make the dish. 9 times out of 10, we just kind of refine it as we go. In my mind, I have an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Most of the time that works for me.”
Start with the lamb ($13) in the raw section. The tartare is prepared with unique flavors. Of his inspiration, the chef explains, “It’s typical of lamb kabob in India. but we’re doing it with a raw preparation.” Toasted sesame, apple, and walnut round the flavor profile out, but the real star here might be the bhatura that accompanies the protein. It’s a leavened, fried Northern Indian bread that is both a delightful vessel for the lamb and equally as delicious on its own.
Continuing with the bread theme, it’s not often that I recommend paying $5 for a yeasty accompaniment, but in the case of the hearth baked bread, I must. It begins with a 10-year-old starter. It’s warm, it’s homey, it’s simple. It’s great.
The farm egg ($11.50) is a resounding success. Two types of asparagus, wood roasted, and an acerbic pickled, comingle with carmelized feta cheese. An excellent muhammara - a Syrian spread with red pepper, pomegranate, and walnut as the dominant flavors and textures - ties it all together and makes this dish unlike any other in Las Vegas.
Right below that on the menu lies the Chinatown Clams Casino ($7.50 each). This dish has been a hit since day one and word spread quickly about it through the foodie community. Chef Howard tells the story of its origin:
That was a dish that was on the fly. We were prepping for a New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s house. I went to the market, grabbed some ingredients, and went home and started making this tomato and seaweed stew with bacon. I had learned a gratinee technique where we take hollandaise, mornay sauce, and whipped cream and fold it into crab and bake it. We made a clam mornay and introduced that to the ragout of seaweed and tomato and bacon and ginger. We fold the clams in a la minute. It’s this new age clams casino in a sense. I thought it really paid homage to Las Vegas in a sense. It holds a reference to something old or classic but done in a new way.
And that’s really what Sparrow + Wolf is all about. It’s somewhat old school, but modernity is pushing back against it. That clash or compliment is paramount to the place’s future.
From the larger plates, the beef cheek and bone marrow dumpling ($14) is a visual pleaser before it even hits your mouth. The green onion emulsion, in its foamy state, is sop-worthy if you haven’t devoured all that bread. The dumpling is a fusion dish that pays homage to a homemade pot roast.
Udon ($16) with lamb bolognese, Taggiasche olives & mint is pepper forward and another example of Howard’s multicultural cooking.
Finally, there is the burger. It’s not on the menu. It’s not served during the normal dinner rush. But it doesn’t matter. This is the worst kept secret in town right now. A friend of the chef was a doing a burger hunt throughout Las Vegas and challenged Howard to make his best. What ended up on the menu is a blend of brisket, chuck, and short rib. Australian black truffle permeates the patty. It’s topped with stretchy burrata cheese, arugula, and horseradish black pepper mayo. As for when it can be ordered, Howard explains, “My friend who challenged me happened to come in late night a lot. If we’re gonna do it, let’s push it late night and let people know we’re open late Thursday through Saturday.” Don’t worry Chef, people know.
Howard and Co. are off to a good start. They couldn’t ask for better hype or community support. It’s a hip place to be, and the food has been praised to the hilt. Howard believes there will be menu changes around every six weeks.
It’s a long way from Grandma’s trailer. The record player might not be there. There is an embarrassment of the fresh ingredients the chef used to eat so rarely. It’s as different an environment as it could be from his initial food inspirations. But for Brian Howard, Sparrow + Wolf is now home. And he welcomes all of you to join his dinner party anytime.