An Exclusive First Look at Sparrow + Wolf

Brian Howard talks to "Vegas Seven" about his new restaurant debuting May 1 in Chinatown.

Brian Howard told himself at 25 that he was going to open his first restaurant by the age of 32. We are standing in the entryway of his soon-to-open Sparrow + Wolf, now—at 35, he isn’t so far off that mark. (Read more about his long journey here)

“I [have] been [cooking] on the Strip for 16 years,” Howard says. “I wanted to get away from that and cook the way I feel the city needs.”

The former pho shop in Chinatown, at the corner of Spring Mountain Boulevard and Arville Street to be exact, is a major construction zone now. But the spark in Howard’s eye indicates the infinite possibilities of what’s to come. He was drawn to this location because, with its dramatic arches and bright orange exterior, “it had great character and was not your average Strip mall. It already has great bones, and we’re putting a great investment into it.”

Howard also liked that it felt stand-alone, an ethos that matches the dramatic name he had in mind: Sparrow + Wolf, which comes from an Indian tale.

“We’re all made up of wolves,” he says. “Wolves are made of light and dark, and it’s a matter of which wolf you feed the most—who you’re going to be. I’ve always found myself on the dark side, but after having my child, I’ve had much more balance in my life.”

He picked the name because it blends masculinity and femininity, and an old world-meets-new world sensibility and culinary style. “The sparrow—he’s the humble forager, he takes care of his family, he doesn’t need a loud voice to be heard,” Howard says. “The wolf—he’s ferocious, he’s a hunter, and he leads his own pack and makes his own way.”

Brian Howard

Pointing to the area adjacent to the door, Howard motions that two large refrigerators will greet guests—one for beer and wine and the other for charcuterie, which will be housemade. He notes that in addition to a full bar, Sparrow + Wolf will also have a packaged liquor license for grab-and-go. Bread will be sold up front, too. The restaurant will be open six days a week for dinner only.

There will be a semiprivate dining room next to the entry and retail space, separated by a wall of brass chains that will come floor to ceiling. The bar, adorned with around 45 lights hung at various levels, will have a view of the kitchen so guests can see live fire cooking on the open hearth. The windows into the kitchen will be tinted in a gold ombre so it remains voyeuristic versus exposed.

“I’m getting back to my Midwestern roots of cooking over fire. I’ve always been fascinated with utilizing whole animals and cooking with every ingredient and not wasting anything.” – Brian Howard

Constantly sourcing, Howard has come by some real finds. “I was able to find a Spanish bread oven that was built in the late 1980s—brass—that was dying in a restaurant supply graveyard,” he says. In the kitchen, it is positioned next to some major new firepower, of course. “I took grilling techniques from different cultures, everything from early American Dutch oven cookery to an Argentinean-style crank wheel up to Japanese robata, and then designed a grill based around that in one piece,” he says. “In the center of the room will be a large 12-foot butcher block island, refrigeration all underneath, that will separate the different stations.”

As we walk the space, the vision becomes cohesive. The food will be a blend of American cooking techniques from as early as the 17th century all the way to what Howard considers to be “his America,” indicative of the melting pot of cultures—a collection of the neighborhoods that he has traveled through or where he grew up in Detroit, surrounded by Middle Eastern and Polish people. “That is my America, and that’s what I wanted to translate here.”

The design aesthetic will be mid-century minimalism—and the interior color palette will feature dark wood, brass, suede, gold and navy blue. All the drywall in the existing space was removed to expose the building’s unique brick architecture and dramatic arches.

“I’ve always been fascinated with brasserie cooking, not just from a food-style standpoint, but the loud boisterous room, the energy,” he says, noting he intends to seat about 80 diners. “We chose a place that was larger than a lot of the restaurants in Chinatown.”

So the question begs to be asked, why cook American food in Chinatown?

“I knew I wanted to be here because this is a food-central [part of town] and it is industry-based,” he says. While Howard’s wife is Cantonese and he loves cooking Asian food, and there will undoubtedly be influence from the neighborhood, he is quick to point out that this is not an Asian restaurant.

“We may have a dumpling but it’s not going to be your typical dumpling. I’m getting back to my Midwestern roots of cooking over fire. I’ve always been fascinated with utilizing whole animals and cooking with every ingredient and not wasting anything. Seasonality is important to us, so I think you’ll see that stylistically throughout the food.”

Diving deep into the menu, he says to expect raw foods, from vegetables to meats and fish, as well as whimsical interpretations such as Chinatown clams casino.

“On New Year’s Eve, we were creating some dishes for a party that I was going to and I picked up some beautiful cherry stone clams that were here in Chinatown and Chinese sausage, and I created my take on clams casino—shiitake mushroom, ginger, garlic and Chinese sausage folded into uni hollandaise. There will also be a beef cheek and bone marrow dumpling with garlic emulsion. Down the road, charcuterie will end up in a fun bento box preparation alongside raw seafood. In all, the menu will have 15 to 18 options—broken down into cold, cured and raw items to share, and large format—and then a grill over a wood fire.”

He estimates check averages in the $48 range and more than 600 songs on his personally curated playlist.

And while this is the first restaurant that Howard will open since he left his position at Comme Ça inside The Cosmopolitan in 2015—it is not the first one he has tried to open. He doesn’t shy away from acknowledging previous attempts as part of the journey. First there was Harvest & Larder on Casino Center Drive.

“Opening up a very ambitious project in the middle of Downtown in the Arts District—it was two projects under one roof and was just massive—was ambitious. Next thing you know you’re pushing $2 million. I was able to raise the funds, but down the line I realized that [it] wasn’t right for me.” So Howard decided to take a break and focus on being a new dad.

“I’d just spent 10 months of my life and came out empty at the end of it,” he says. “It was a week before I had my son and I [decided] I’m going to take the next six months off, learn to be a dad, learn to be great at that.”

Most people might settle into an easier life outside the kitchen, the whole scenario made Howard hustle harder. “So I started again. That was when I found the Main Street location [in the space of the former Attic in the Arts District] … I had already been in talks with the developer there, and then again, long story short, right before construction, I realized this isn’t right for me.” And so he packed up.

It was also through this process that he decided that he was better as a one-man show in terms of vision, concept and even design. “If I’m going to do this, it’s got to be my way. And if I fail at it, then I only have myself to blame.”

After two years, Howard ended up right back where he started. “[This] was the very first space I looked at actually,” he says. “And that was the biggest decision I made along the [way]—trusting my instincts, because I think we hear our instincts a lot, we hear that voice inside that tells you yes or no and what’s right, what’s wrong. And we fail to see it because somebody’s giving you $300,000, or you’ve worked at this for so long that you need to just get something open. I think the hardest part was saying, ‘No, I have to trust my gut and listen to myself.’”

The journey has taught him that his place is truly in the kitchen. “I went from being an executive chef to a corporate executive chef running six restaurants for David Myers, and I realized it wasn’t really that fun for me. I put out fires all the time and I learned a ton on the financial side—but now to be my own kitchen, I can actually get back to being on the line, being a cook again.”

His wild entrepreneurial spirit won’t be quenched anytime soon. “I’ve got the itch. I’ve already started writing other concepts. My wife says, ‘Why don’t you open the first one?'”