by Daniel Cappello
If heaven exists, then surely a sublime sushi of smoked arctic char on magnificently rounded mounds of spicy rice would be served there. And surely it would be a pleasing place of physical comfort, perhaps even awash in white walls with a sleek sea of walnut-covered everything. If this is an inkling of the after-life, then a preview might be had at Chez Sardine, one of the latest packed-full-of-charm restaurants by Gabriel Stulman (who brought us Perla, Fedora, Joseph Leonard, Montmartre, et al.).
Chez Sardine is less of an homage to the preparation and serving-up of the tiny fish that is its namesake (though the correlation between the size of the restaurant and the salty sea creature is undeniable), and more of a metaphor to the two words of its nomenclature. “Chez,” of course, is French for “at the home of,” and immediately staff and space make you feel at home. This is the kind of place where sitting with the bartender feels like catching up with your college roommate. And then there’s the “Sardine,” which, like the fish, stands for a deceptively small yet extremely intricate thing bursting with flavor (not to mention nature’s bounty of omega 3s, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, and B vitamins).
Executive chef Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly was curious about and embracing of Asian cuisine, and Chez Sardine is aptly—if loosely—based on the Japanese izakaya (forgive the comparison, but think Japanese tapas bar). The menu is divided into four basic categories—Snacks, Sushi Bar, Small Plates, and Large Plates—and there’s seemingly no wrong combination of any and all parts. The inventive Brunet-Benkritly and his flavor-driven direction mean the menu might change from day to day (literally), but one constant remains fixed: the wildly popular miso-maple salmon head. Plates of sushi arrive like mitigated peace offerings of the ages-old battle in Italian art between disegno and colore, or form and color. Here, they are matched with perfect harmony (like still lifes waiting to be painted) and combine in such tasteful syntheses as chopped scallop, quail egg, and trout roe.
Caviar on buttered toast comes as a reminder that, like foie gras or other joys of life, a measured taste goes a long way. There isn’t room enough anywhere for the words needed to describe the octopus carpaccio with aioli and tomato gelée, or the beef tartare with mustard oil and horseradish. Or—because one would be remiss to forget them—the maki tempura with crab, avocado, and chipotle mayo and the duck-confit and smoked-cheddar grilled cheese. After a leisurely, senses-stupefying evening in this corner-perched paradise of the West Village, who could even think of dessert? Never mind. With so little room in the kitchen, all that will fit is a frozen-yogurt machine that swirls out perfectly delectable servings with granola sprinkled on top. After all those decisions between unagi and coconut curried clams, you’ll be perfectly happy that this last one is on the house.
For more information, please visit Chez Sardine online.