The Underground Gourmet: At Chez Sardine, a Playful Approach to Japanese-Inspired Tapas
God forbid the Underground Gourmet should ever find himself in a holding cell on death row, with little hope of Ms. U.G. coming through with the file baked into a cake or the governor issuing a stay of execution. But if he does, at least he’ll know what to order for his last meal on Earth. That would be the foie-gras-and-smoked-Cheddar grilled cheese sandwich from Chez Sardine, the latest addition to Gabriel Stulman’s burgeoning West Village empire. This is one of those dishes that fall squarely under the heading of things that sound horribly wrong but taste incredibly right. Yes, it’s fat on fat and — taking into account the generously buttered bread — even more fat, but the beauty of this stupendous morsel lies in its unexpected balance. The Sullivan St Bakery filone is expertly griddled to the golden-brown point where slightly greasy meets delicately crisp; the house-smoked fromage is as well melted as a jar of microwaved Velveeta; and the kitchen deploys the foie gras almost like a condiment in little half-moon dabs so it doesn’t steal the show. Pickled onion and cucumber deliver some acid and crunch, while the accompanying bottle of green Tabasco is a nice touch that proves this is one glorified grilled cheese that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
And that’s just one of the excellent dishes at Chez Sardine you might consider worthy of a good death-row binge. The menu is full of all sorts of succulent things: There’s an unctuous pork-and-unagi hand roll listed under the menu category “Snacks,” which is also where you’ll find the “caviar and butter toast” — a budget-minded, practically Baskin-Robbins-size scoop of fish eggs from the American bowfin (a lowly catch increasingly prized for its tasty roe) plopped onto a plank of toasted pizza-bianca dough. It’s caviar for the masses. Under “Large Plates,” there’s a big soul-soothing bowl of Japanese curry rice built around two deeply flavorful lumps of beef cheek so tender you can eat them with a spoon. And there are wonderful silver-dollar pancakes festooned with pearls of salmon roe, diced arctic-char tartare, and drippings of yogurt that arrive at your table looking like some lost Jackson Pollock tableau.
Stulman, the terrifically whiskered face behind Joseph Leonard, Jeffrey’s Grocery, Perla, and Fedora, has been snapping up charismatic West Village properties at a feverish clip, and Chez Sardine, the fifth in his fiefdom, is the tiniest yet, with twenty seats at low wood tables and another ten spanning two small bars. It is, like its menu, vaguely Asian in appearance: streamlined, white walled, and wood paneled, with louvered slats along the windows and ceiling. For such postage-stamp premises (a Stulman specialty), the corner spot feels more cozy than cramped.
The restaurateur and his chef-partner, Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly (also chef at Stulman’s Fedora, and before that at Montreal’s foie-fetishist Au Pied de Cochon), have described the place as an unabashedly inauthentic izakaya, the kind of no-frills, rambunctious Japanese tavern where salarymen munch on Nipponese pub grub while they tie one on. You can follow suit at this New York-styled version, too, as most of the plates tend to be small and snacky and the bar well stocked with the requisite sake and beer but also a much longer list of mostly French wines, many from the Loire and Jura regions. This being what many consider a new golden age of the cocktail, there are four house concoctions creatively conceived, esoterically named, and meticulously made. If the Twizzlers bitters in the Walking With a Panther strikes you as excessively gimmicky, we recommend the pungent rum-and-ginger-beer concoction called B-Side Records.
In the izakaya tradition, you’ll want to pair the booze with salty deep-fried mouth-waterers like crunchy rice balls and McNugget-size bites of chicken enlivened with kimchee purée and spicy aïoli. But where this kitchen really shines is in the seafood department, both raw and cooked, and in the unexpected offcuts you’re likelier to stumble across in a bona fide Japanese joint.
While much has been made in recent years of the forgotten joy of tucking into the more intimate parts of the cow, the pig, and the sheep, to say nothing of the goat, too little has been done on behalf of the fish. Brunet-Benkritly apparently is out to right this wrong, and here, in the confrontational form of a miso-maple-roasted salmon head, we have Exhibit A. That a full-fledged head of salmon with its tiny fangs, hooked nose, and bulging eyeballs gets prominent placement in the center of the menu signals either that the kitchen considers this dish its best work or that someone in accounting would like to sell a lot of them. (In fact, it’s a little of both. Though initially intended as an outlet for the heads of the whole salmon that Brunet-Benkritly smokes at Fedora, the dish has become sufficiently popular that spare parts, i.e., heads alone, need to be ordered to meet demand.) The flesh of a salmon’s head — especially around the cheek, in case you didn’t know — is remarkably rich and fatty and deliciously different from the ubiquitous fillet; it’s like dark-meat chicken versus white. If there’s anything better than a roast salmon head, though, it’s a roast hamachi collar (an occasional special), its gelatinous, collagen-rich meat flaking away from the fins in succulent shards that possess a creamy, almost custardlike texture.
Heads and collars aside, the most impressive thing about Chez Sardine might be its wonderfully unconventional sushi: hamachi with ginger and a stealth sliver of chicharrón, a tender slice of beef tongue with ponzu and jalapeño, Spanish mackerel with crispy threads of fried leek and potato, smoky arctic char with spicy rice, and a deliriously good hand roll of beef tartare with sea urchin. The combinations are bold but harmonious, the slightly warm sushi rice beautifully cooked, the furtive textural accents brilliant. It may be a bit much to say that Brunet-Benkritly is on the brink of doing for sushi what David Chang did for ramen (that is, enrage traditionalists while seducing flavor-obsessed freethinkers), but we’ll say it anyway. Death-row sushi—now, there’s a concept.
183 W. 10th St., at W. 4th St. 646-360-3705
Hours: Sunday and Tuesday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday till 1 a.m.
Prices: $4 to $24.
Ideal Meal: Sushi, foie-gras-and-smoked-Cheddar grilled cheese, hamachi collar or beef-cheek curry.
Note: There’s no dessert menu, but every meal ends with a tiny bowl of soft-serve or maple pudding on the house.
Scratchpad: One star for the audacity of the grilled cheese sandwich; one for a kitchen clever and daring enough to court the nose-to-tail piscivore; another for izakaya-worthy boozing options; and one more for a well-coordinated floor staff that serves up the grub with style and smarts.
*This article originally appeared in the January 14, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.