Provo » More than anything, Spark Restaurant Lounge comes up in conversation as "the high-end dining place that doesn't serve liquor." An intriguing concept. But not so surprising considering the location. Provo, Utah, home of Brigham Young University and one of the epicenters of LDS life, isn't associated with a "lounge scene."
Spark's take is heavy on the hip and free of the booze. What you can expect is a scene as urbane and trendy as a "Sex and the city" hangout, only with a PG-13 rating. Cocktails exist as "mocktails" and the menu tries to keep up with the smart look. But like the drinks, the ambitious dishes are merely facsimiles of the real thing, passable knock-offs of a Prada bag or a Marc Jacobs dress.
That isn't to say Spark's space isn't fun, if a bit contrived. It occupies the corner space of a new building but has the hollowed-out feel of a renovated warehouse. Unusually good-looking servers smartly dressed in black set the pace of the meal, sometimes spot on, other times lagging. Oversized pieces of modern art glow like neon signs off of the dark industrial walls. Even the light fixtures would put IKEA to shame. Most importantly, I can't think of another restaurant open as late as Spark.
Curiously, the lounge sits at the rear of the space, hidden away like some sleek speakeasy. I figured Spark would want its den of alcohol-free fun front and center showing the pedestrians and passers-by happy patrons sipping on mint and mango-spiked Sprite ("mojito," $3.50) or the novelty of a cotton candy-crowned Shirley Temple ($3.50).
You guessed it, the "mocktails" rely on saccharine pleasures suiting virgin margarita lovers or designated drivers, who might want to consider the "ox blood" ($3.50) if only for its Red Bull odor and vigor. Navarro Vineyards Pinot Noir Grape Juice ($5.50 glass; $18 bottle) is the closest thing wine lovers can expect to their beloved libation. Naysaying isn't the point here, rather I'm of the opinion that beverages should complement what's on my plate -- more so with a menu as ambitious as Spark's.
Initially, I received comments about Spark's propensity for haute cuisine where foams and emulsions are as commonplace as the simple, delicious, herb-speckled pommes frites ($6). With Lauro Romero taking over the kitchen after the departure of the original chefs, reports and experiences have varied with a largely intact menu.
Indeed, a unique flair is there. "Dueling edamame" ($5.50) pairs a familiar cold, salted preparation with wonderfully blistered pods, seared with chunks of bacon and served warm.
Yet despite the pleasures of temperature and texture, the overwhelming sweetness from the maple bacon detracted from the edamame's overall quality. Same for the "tandoori-crusted" blue nose bass ($22) and its coconut rice and pineapple salsa.
Every component has to be on the fork for most of Spark's dishes to resonate. Otherwise they're just OK versus outright good. A well-seasoned roast chicken ($17.50) was a bit dry and needed the rather sweet jus. But with the slivers of potatoes, everything evened out. Cilantro shrimp ($8) benefitted from the polenta and red and green garnish oils. Seared scallops ($19) suffered from the same problem. This time, though, the kitchen forgot the badly needed grapefruit gastrique to go with it.
Carelessness and pretense afflicted the corn soup ($5) that without that coveted froth (in this case jalapeño) was like a warm cheese dip. Fried chocolate pudding ($8) sounded intriguing but was nothing more than a chocolate fondue-type liquid encased in a batter and fried, unfortunately, in the same oil as the fries. The kitchen should also re-think presentation of the whimsical "bacon and eggs" dessert ($8). The egg-y ice cream studded with bacon arrives in a deep, gleaming porcelain bowl. The dramatic brushstroke sweep of painted dark chocolate garnish doesn't so much inspire culinary awe as it does schoolgirl giggles.
Spark's ambition comes in a striking package. But to be remarkable and worthy in a town where most diners seemingly want to be fed at the best value, there needs to be much more fine-tuning to convince curious diners that such an approach to cuisine can be good and worth the price, alcohol or not.
E-mail Vanessa Chang at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Mocktails" and an ambitious menu can be good, but mostly sweet and monotone. Humble roast chicken is good.
Location » 86 N. University Ave., Provo; 801-701-6780
Online » www.sparkrestaurantlounge.com
Hours » Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 p.m. to midnight; Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday, noon to 2 p.m., 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Children's menu » No
Prices » $$
Liquor » None
Reservations » Accepted
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » Coming soon
On-site parking » No
Credit cards » All major