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The spaetzle served with the grilled pork chop is simply perfection  

Bird’s Nest

by Jamie Gwen | Andrea Bricco | Riviera Orange County magazine | December 6, 2013

There’s something to be said for small, independent restaurants. The owner is usually present. The chef is typically passionate. And there’s always a quaint, personal vibe. Little Sparrow is just this sort of place—a gem of an establishment with a reigning chef (Eric Samaniego) who hails from Comme Ça (David Myers’ famed brasserie) and a husband-and-wife team of owners (Bruce Marsh and Naseem Aflakian) whose roots sprout from New York.

Their charming neighborhood eatery sits on a corner in downtown Santa Ana, with only 30 seats occupying the diminutive dining room. Head down the hallway, and you’ll find a delightful bar, dimly lit and perfect for casual dining or comfortable drinking. The menu bears this message to guests: “It would be a sad waste of opportunity to eat badly. Enjoy.” With that said, you can expect to be served food for food lovers, by a staff who is as accommodating as a mother sparrow.

During the day, it’s a casual lunch hot spot. And on the weekends, there’s a lovely brunch. But at night, Little Sparrow turns into a culinary destination for gastronomic intrigue.

Before you begin your adventure, I suggest you ask your server (Michelle, if you’re lucky) for the signature cocktail list, and you’ll immediately gain an appreciation for the personalized attention to detail. On a recent visit, my Gin Gin Buck delighted the palate with Hendrick’s, freshly squeezed lime and housemade bitters. Handcrafted and inspired by a modern approach to timeless spirits, it’s refreshing and fantastic. And when sipped in between nibbles of Chicken Cracklins from the bites menu, it’s spectacular. (Yes, I said Chicken Cracklins—crispy pieces of chicken skin seasoned with togarashi, the zesty Japanese seasoning that tastes good even on your elbow.) The housemade charcuterie is spectacular, too, and a glorious example of Samaniego’s fervent talent for artisanal creations. Another cocktail, and you’d be perfectly content gorging on pork rillettes, pates, mustard pools and homemade pickles for your evening’s meal. But no, there is so much more to indulge in, so eat on.

Choose more from the starters—consider the roasted beet salad, which arrives like art on a plate. It’s a forest of vivid imagery, created from only edible things—a roasted beet here and there resting in a smooth, shallow pond of Brillat-Savarin cheese (a French cow’s milk triple-crème brie), with candied walnuts and bitey mustard-flavored micro greens. Finished with a mist of sumac dust, the dish is earthy and elegant. You’ll want to try the steamed mussels, as well. They’re prepared in sour beer, and infused with the anise flavor of fennel and the beauty of Spanish piquillo peppers. (You’ll notice that the mussels need a bigger bowl, so you can dip the scrumptiously charred grilled bread into the sauce.) Next, you must partake in the roasted bone marrow—it is the dish that you’ll be emailing and tweeting and Instagramming your friends about. Succulent, rich and so-crazy-good roasted fat from a veal marrow bone is spread on grilled bread and topped with a bright, bitter salad of greens and radishes, with a few raisins thrown in for sweetness—all to create a culinary climax that is not to be missed. Seriously.

Pause to order another cocktail or choose from the wine list of unique and somewhat unknown whites, reds and one rosé. South Africa, France, Spain and California are all represented, and I think you’ll find a lovely selection
for experimentation.

Moving on, you’ll be tempted to choose entrees. You’ll need to try the grilled pork chop—it’s become one of the chef’s signature dishes. The spaetzle—made in-house—is fabulously nutty with perfect consistency. You might find the chop a bit toothsome and the plate lacking sauce, however. You’ll be most pleased with the vegetarian offering of roasted-cauliflower agnolotti. It’s cauliflower on cauliflower on cauliflower, from the filling to the sauce to the garnish. It’s delectable, with its fabulous floral spice and impeccable texture. Loved this dish.

And, so, you will be full. But a flawless macchiato will pair perfectly with the plum cobbler, created with a lovely balance of sweet and tart, just in case you were wondering. Do take home a cookie and a croissant, if there are any left. You’ll want them for breakfast the next morning. Little Sparrow bestows food that you will crave and come back for, gracious service and an overall charming vibe. Get in the car and take a drive to Santa Ana—you’ll thank me tomorrow.

Little Sparrow
300 N. Main St., Santa Ana, 714.265.7640, littlesparrowcafe.com

Starters: $14 to $17
Entrees: $19 to $28
Cocktails: $12

Tue.-Fri.: 11am-3pm and 5:30pm-12am, Sat.: 9am-3pm and 5:30pm-12am, Sun.: 9am-3pm

Now You Know
During the day, it’s a casual lunch spot. At night, it’s a sophisticated culinary destination.

Who Goes There
Knowledgeable foodies and Civic Center professionals

You Must Order
The bone marrow, the housemade charcuterie and the cobbler

Best Seat in the House
Any spot at the cool bar-a dim, lovely oasis tucked at the end of the hallway

Perfect Pairing
The Chicken Cracklins from the bites menu are spectacular with the Gin Gin Buck signature cocktail.