Since opening at the start of the year, The Sparrows has made quite a splash on the Manchester restaurant scene. Impressive for such a dinky little place and situated in a hard to reach location, these are just two factors that contribute to its hidden gem status.
Since that Jay Rayner review, everyone and their dog has been talking about Sparrows, but going to this little restaurant tucked into an arch on Mirabel St still feels like discovering a secret, and a pretty special one at that.
The food is, for me, the ultimate combo – as comforting and indulgent as your mum’s mac n’ cheese, but light enough to feel sophisticatedly European.
I start with spätzle, the dish they’re known for and named after. For the uninitiated, spätzle is Germany’s answer to pasta, though its texture has more in common with gnocchi or dumplings. During the cooking process, the dough is added to water, where it rises to the surface and takes on a shape similar to a sparrow in flight.
My experience of it so far has been confined to mounds of cheesy, often stodgy dough – no complaints here, it’s absolutely ideal hangover food. But what’s on offer at The Sparrows is somewhat more refined and, quite simply, the best I’ve ever had.
I kept it classic and opted for the Käse Spätzle (£6), which comes in a delightfully creamy, rich sauce of melted gruyere and Emmental cheese, perfectly contrasted by sweet slithers of braised onion. This is nicely washed down with a glass of crisp Grüner Veltliner, which makes me feel like I’m in a beer garden in southern Germany, rather than an inconspicuous side street off the Manchester Arena.
When I order another main, I sense a flicker of alarm in the face of owner and solo waitress Kasia, which makes sense once the complimentary hunk of home-made, freshly baked focaccia (perfect for mopping up) also arrives.
It comes alongside a pot of sauerkraut – never an easy sell – which actually provides a light, tangy contrast to the main dishes, the addition of seeds and cranberries almost enough to trick you into feeling healthy.
Next up is the Mushroom and Sauerkraut Pierogi (£7). These filled savoury dumplings are one of Poland’s national dishes (a nice nod to Kasia’s heritage) and are basically everything you want on a grey, rainy Manchester day. They come served with a hearty dollop of sour cream and are pan-fried in butter, giving them a crispy texture more similar to gyoza.
East Asian influence doesn’t stop there. Sake to wash down your spätzle? Why not. Kasia has been supplying to legendary sushi restaurant Umezushi, which is just over the road, for the past seven years, so she knows what’s good.
Green tea and shochu also appear on the drinks menu, alongside Swiss pilsner, German gin and martinis. This blend of cultures is everywhere. Japanese-style cutlery trays sit next to those ubiquitous cork cup holders Ikea seems to be doing a roaring trade-in.
Food-wise there’s ravioli, pelimeni (Russian dumplings), goulash, soup and brunch. The whole thing could so easily not work. But rather than be a confusing mashup, the space is calm and relaxing (despite being full to the brim with lunch-goers), and the menu a perfect combination of complementary flavours.
Dessert is the Earl Grey Panna Cotta (£3). I’m told that Franco, Kasia’s partner and the chef responsible for the Italian influence, makes the best around.
The Earl Grey flavour (achieved with tea from the only European plantation) is delicate and light, and I love that they paired it with homemade marmalade on top. I don’t know if I’m holidaying in Piedmont or breakfasting in colonial Britain and I don’t care, it’s delicious.
During my visit, Kasia juggles hungry students (who’ve been before and whose likes and dislikes she’s remembered), ragu-hungry local builders, and two suits clearly straight from the train from Euston who she has to turn away.
It’s a testament not only to the universal appeal of the food, which is freshly made and well-priced, but also how well they have already integrated into the community. Including brownie made by the postman’s wife on the dessert menu is a nice touch. Giving me a taster of it alongside my Italian coffee (strong and black) is even nicer.
Clichéd as it may sound, thought, love and passion have got into every inch of The Sparrows, and it shows. Kasia and Franco’s cultural heritage, expertise and depth of knowledge shine through to offer an experience that’s warm and welcoming but also seriously high-quality.
No wonder it’s a roaring success, though how much longer they’ll be able to operate from such a small space is doubtful. They’re clearly thinking the same- as I leave Kasia mentions plans for a beer garden… see you there
The Sparrows, Unit3 Mirabel Street, Manchester M31PJ