Spark is Newport’s new kid on the block, or rather those three blocks along Broadway that have become the city’s restaurant row. Cuisines range from Tex-Mex to Trinidadian and styles span from the casual diner breakfast to an upscale romantic dinner. Spark has entered the arena in that last category, even arranging with Vicker’s Liquors to list a few of its wines on the menu. After you choose one, the waitress will call and in the time it takes to say “cabernet sauvignon,” the wine will be delivered to your table (corkage fee: $2.50 per person).
This make-you-feel-at-home philosophy continues with the friendliness of the staff and with the warmth of the décor. The walls are a soft peach, and small orange pyramidal lamps hang in two rows down the intimate space. Woven mats in dark earth tones, placed diagonally on the tabletops, soften even the crisp white linens. Black chairs are set off by a banquette in orange hues that runs the length of one side of the dining room and turns twice to frame the large L-shaped window at the front. Five starburst mirrors are the only wall decoration on that long wall, but they represent the “spark” logo of the restaurant.
What brought us to this new spot was the reputation of chef Sue Zinno, who cooked at Tucker’s Bistro for three years and who, with co-owner Kim Comfort, had run a successful catering business before opening Spark. Zinno’s knack for creative menu items is intact, but, unfortunately, so is the Tucker’s penchant for low, low lighting. Maybe this is my being an old fogy, but I had to use the table’s votive candle to read the menu!
It’s not as hard to make out the names of the dishes, but it’s a stretch to read the descriptions — and those are really important. What would you think “black-eyed lobster” might be? A lobster tail garnished with truffle-whipped potatoes and caviar. Or crispy Chinese 5-spiced oysters? They’re served with crunchy slaw and a “sticky cashew noodle twist.” But of course the most curious appetizer among the ten is the “KimSue,” which instructs diners: “If you don’t know, you’ll have to ask us.”
The KimSue ($11) is a marvelous variation on the many Asian themes in Spark’s menu, this time a nacho plate of crisp-fried wonton skins, liberally doused with sesame/peanut sauce and topped with slivered scallions and three grilled Florida shrimp. That provenance is important, since we so seldom find anything but frozen flown-from-Asia shrimp at restaurants, and Spark’s motto is “fresh product, fresh ideas.” This popular appetizer was great, with contrasting textures and tastes vying for attention.
Between the app list and the entrées, three salads (one with roasted beets and arugula) and three pizzas (one with foie gras, and another with pancetta and broccoli rabe) are listed. There’s also a declaration that vegetarians can order dishes without the meat or fish, but if you’re vegan, there would be a lot of cheese to step around. You’d also have to specify a veggie stock for the risotto, no bacon cooked with the collards, etc. It could get tricky.
But Bill’s dish, the green curry shrimp and scallop noodle bowl ($23), with sautéed shiitakes, chili peppers, lime leaves, and bean sprouts, served over fresh udon noodles, would work just fine. That wonderful broth would be tasty with anything, but the shrimp and scallops were also carefully cooked.
Though I most often choose a veggie or fish dish, I eyed the veal stock with the risotto and scallops and the pancetta with the shrimp-and-chopped-fig pasta dish, settling on the Statler chicken breast ($18), described as “Asian-marinated.” Not too much of that flavor seeped through for me, but the peanut dressing on the mixed greens and raw veggies was delicious.
An outside pastry chef makes the desserts, but they sounded great: almond/banana cheesecake, banana spring rolls with butterscotch sauce, butterscotch crème brulée — note the theme. We settled on a trio of cupcakes with different frostings (desserts are all $5). The frosting was almost as tall as the tiny cakes, but much too sweet to get the raspberry, cherry, and banana flavors.
Our waitress told us the menu will change seasonally, and as it does, may we make a suggestion? With Zinno’s skill in the kitchen, could she make a special roasted veggie platter, along with her terrific bean/garlic dip, served with a nice foccacia? And maybe one of the desserts could be a fresh fruit bowl? Those are our friendly thoughts for a delightful new addition to the neighborhood.