Little Sparrow is located
at 300 N. Main St., Santa Ana.
714.265.7640 :: littlesparrowcafe.com
The first thing that comes to mind when visiting Little Sparrow in downtown Santa Ana is that this restaurant is a premonition of great things to come. While the ambience downtown already boasts its own unique character – men strutting down Main sporting cowboy boots and Stetsons; horseback-riding police officers; shops strewn with quinceanera fineries. Little Sparrow feels completely unique and yet at the same time in step with the neighborhood’s ongoing gentrification.
“There’s a community down here with amazing camaraderie,” says owner Bruce Marsh. “There’s this notion among the people working in the area, that Santa Ana has got to work. Everyone believes in it.”
And with groundbreaking local hotspots like Playground DTSA, Chapter One and Memphis within walking distance, Little Sparrow is definitely keeping good company.
Walking into Little Sparrow feels as if you’ve stumbled upon a neighborhood secret. When Marsh and his wife, Naseem Aflakian, first discovered the long-vacant Santa Ana Café, they fell in love. “We pressed our faces against the glass,” he recalls.
Instantly, they knew that this was it. The space was left vacant for 15 years before the couple discovered it. But tearing down the structure was definitely out of the question. Instead, they wanted to restore the dining room space and preserve the architecture.
Next came the name.
“Little Sparrow comes from two places,” says Marsh. “My wife and I were looking for some kind of inspirational character. The sparrow is a motherly, nurturing symbol in mythology.”
Inspiration also came from an unlikely muse, the popular French WWII singer Edith Piaf (nicknamed La Môme Piaf or Little Sparrow). For Marsh and his wife, this was a good segue. They liked the idea of French underpinnings and tiny Parisian cafes. They also wanted a place where you instantly felt a part of the neighborhood.
The clean bistro-inspired décor is minimal, much like the menu. Chef Eric Samaniego (who was David Meyer’s executive sous chef at the celebrated Los Angeles Comme Ça and also cooked for Charlie Trotter in Chicago) sticks to the basics. The menu features classic French-inspired items that you’ve seen time and time again in New York and San Francisco – bone marrow, sweet breads and house-made charcuterie. But, this feels very unexpected for Orange County.
The roasted bone marrow spreads smoothly onto grilled slices of bread like the most decadent butter. The accompanying pile of fleur de sel allows diners to season their toasts just to their liking. The farro salad starter with roasted oyster mushrooms and dandelion greens was a surprising hit. Farro is a hearty, rustic Italian grain that barely graces OC menus. However, when Samaniego finishes the dish with his egg (cooked for 5 minutes and 10 seconds exactly), it coats the farro with a yolky sauce that makes the dish irresistible.
The entrees exemplify Samaniego’s background in new American cuisine. The local halibut was a bit underwhelming, but the garnishes that accompany it really steal the show. I could have devoured a whole bowl of the white bean, chorizo and mailla clams. (In fact, that’s what I did – leaving that dry piece of white fish behind.)
At Little Sparrow, attention to detail is key. The chef makes his own pastas including the vegetarian-friendly agnolotti stuffed with ricotta and served with roasted tomatoes and shaved asparagus. But, the 10-ounce Prime NY strip with grilled leeks and confit potatoes does not disappoint. The zesty Spanish Rosmesco sauce made with red bell peppers and pureed hazelnuts really worked as a zesty “steak sauce.”
The desserts and cocktails are impressive on their own. The cobbler served with vanilla ice cream and fresh peaches is reminiscent of a light coffee cake. And, although the dessert menu features only four items, each is executed with precision. Pastry Chef Nasera Munshi, who also cooked at Comme Ça and Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Beverly Hills before joining the team at Little Sparrow, was the first person Samaniego called when he got the gig. He knew that if he wanted hand-made croissants and fresh breads, they would need to hire a veteran.
The cocktails here are not just mixed, but crafted with care. This is a place where you order a drink knowing that it will be expertly concocted. Little Sparrow’s resident mixologist Joe Valdovinos believes in classic cocktails with a twist. “I prefer cocktails with less than five ingredients,” says Valdovinos. “The more things you put in a cocktail, the more it’ll dilute the greatness.” That means that almost everything is made in-house – from juicing fresh ginger daily to carving his own ice cubes. Valdovinos also works in a great space. The owners took great care perfecting the hidden bar area in the back. “Eighty percent of the design time was spent on the bar,” recalls Marsh. “We literally built the bar ourselves,” transforming a dusty storage area into a swanky speakeasy-style lounge. The attention to detail and care taken by Marsh, his wife and their other partner, Jenny Le, really make Little Sparrow a neighborhood gem.
When things are meant to be, the universe has a way of aligning itself. Finding the space was one thing. But, finding the chef that would helm the kitchen was another surprising twist of fate. Instead of recruiting an OC veteran, Little Sparrow found its talented chef through “Craigslist believe it or not,” recalls Marsh. “Eric had taken some time off from Comme Ça. We had used our network and interviewed a bunch of OC chefs. But there just wasn’t the right fit.” When Samaniego walked into their kitchen, there was an immediate connection. “We loved his personality and his outlook. He’s got the fundamentals. He’s just jonesing to try other things.”
Fortunately, OC is apt and ready.