For five years, Sparks has anchored an intersection in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood with little fanfare.
But for the past six months, change has quietly been taking hold at the corner restaurant.
Paul Backer, former executive chef at Tilia and St. Genevieve, took over the small kitchen at Sparks (230 Cedar Lake Rd. S., Mpls., sparksmpls.com) in January, and has since turned over the staff — both in the back of house and the front — while administering his own culinary touch to a menu in need of inspiration.
“We’ve been pretty quiet about it,” Backer said of his new presence in Minneapolis. “We’ve tried to slowly improve it. I wanted to start from scratch. I wanted to make it a destination, a focal point of the neighborhood.”
The menu, which previously consisted of mostly burgers, pizza, tacos and entrees, has now been expanded to include more small plates — such as pork confit rillettes and scallop ceviche — salads and some brunch items. There is still a burger, along with a host of sandwiches showcasing fried mortadella and smoked trout, among other ingredients.
“I’m not trying to show anyone how smart or clever we are,” Backer said. “It’s relatively simple food.”
Several pizzas, which range from the simple (plain cheese and salami) to the inspired (truffle egg with kale and pecorino) are cooked in a wood-fired pizza oven, centerpiece of the snug bar area.
That feature was part of the draw for Backer.
“It was kind of an interesting aspect,” he said. “So it’s been all about how do we take advantage of the oven without making it too gimmicky.”
Of course, that focus is as much about function as it is about concept. Outside of a couple of induction burners, the pizza oven is the only mode available for cooking.
When Backer arrived, there also wasn’t any equipment for prepping — instead, all of that was done at sister restaurant Rinata in Uptown. Backer and Co. upgraded the kitchen, but it still offers plenty of challenges.
“You can only fit so many pizzas and burgers in that oven,” Backer said. “And when you seat over 100 people, that can get tricky.”
For now, he’s making it work, and the neighborhood eatery is seeing new life.
Other restaurant happenings:
Bastille Day is Friday, which means the Twin Cities will be saying “oui” to French-inspired celebrations all weekend long.
On Friday, St. Genevieve (5003 Bryant Av. S., Mpls., stgmpls.com) will be hosting a Champagne and oyster pop-up event in its alleyway from 2-7 p.m. (the bivalves are $2.50 a pop and bubbly goes for $10 a glass).
St. Paul’s Bar Brigade (470 S. Cleveland Av., St. Paul, barbrigade.com) is holding a baguette sandwich pop-up at noon that day, then rolling into the weekend with a Bastille Day brunch on Saturday and Sunday featuring special items as chef J.D. Fratzke tests dishes for the fall menu.
Meanwhile, Uptown’s Barbette (1600 W. Lake St., Mpls., barbette.com) is holding its annual festivities on Sunday, a block party that will feature plenty of live music, picnic foods and cold beverages.
Can’t get enough of the Twin Cities’ many farmers markets? Shoppers will have yet another option beginning Tuesday, when Mill City Farmers Market will start infiltrating the Commons park at 425 Portland Av. S. in downtown Minneapolis on a weekly basis for the remainder of summer. Vendors offering produce and artisan goods will be on hand from 3:30-7:30 p.m. each Tuesday until Sept. 26.