183 West 10th Street, New York NY 10014 (at West 4th; map); 646-360-3705; chezsardine.com
Service: Gracious, seasoned, charming
Setting: Spartan West Village corner space feels bigger than its 30-odd seats
Must-Haves: Salmon head, beef-uni sushi, "breakfast pancakes"
Cost: Expect about $30/head for food
"This would be a fantastic first date activity," was my first thought as my dining companion and I dove into Chez Sardine's miso-maple salmon head ($12). It's delivered as a mid-course, smartly, as when it's on the table it commands all of your attention. And it's as much adventure as plated dish, prompting a solid fifteen minutes of excited chopstick-poking and guaranteed conversation. "Do you want the eye, or can I have it?" "Did you pick the cheek clean yet?" "I think I found the tongue. Do fish have tongues?" "Looks like it. Want half?"
All as your hands get sticky-tacky with salmon fat and miso (thus the moistened napkins served alongside) and you're discovering just how many different things one fish can taste like. It takes no effort to recall the taste of salmon, its pure oily salmon-ness, so familiar to just about every eater. But do you know tender salmon cheeks, or the crisp ends of salmon fins, or the lusciously fatty meat behind the eye socket?
I do, now, thanks to Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly, the eccentric-in-all-the-right-ways chef behind the new Chez Sardine (and, both together with restaurateur Gabriel Stulman, Fedora around the corner). They've taken to calling Sardine an "inauthentic izakaya," which captures the restaurant's liveliness and particular way with delicious snacky things quite well, if not necessarily the seriousness of the approach. Fedora has long been, in my mind, one of Manhattan's most underrated restaurants. The food world had plenty of love to lavish on Stulman's Perla when it opened earlier this year, while Fedora didn't at first get the same arms-wide-open reception. But Brunet-Benkritly is one of my favorite chefs in the city these days, and Chez Sardine is every bit as offbeat, likable, and accomplished as Fedora had me anticipating.
Traditional sushi is an exercise in purity, but Brunet-Benkritly (and Stulman, for that matter) have never been hemmed in by orthodoxy. Clean, focused flavors: yes, but you'll find nothing that's fish-on-rice, full stop. Rather, beef tongue with ponzu and jalapeño; hamachi with chicharrón. It's sushi priced per piece, which might have you erring toward the $4 pieces rather than the $7 ones. While the chopped beef with sea urchin ($7) is a staggeringly tasty thing—a generous mouthful of uni is a joyous enough experience; beef tartare once you polish off the uni might be gilding the lily, but I don't mind a bit—the arctic char ($4), smoked in-house and served with bits of crunchy rice and spicy mayonnaise, is a worthy choice as well. Or the multiple bites you get from a pork and unagi hand roll ($8)—the eel barbecued, the pork belly braised, the couple joined by avocado and spicy mayo and snugly wrapped in nori.
An amuse is hardly expected at a casual, paper-napkin spot, but Sardine starts you off with a small bowl of marinated daikon with bonito flakes, making for a few happy chopstick-fuls, a tiny gesture that feels like a welcome. There's no pastry chef, but a tiny dish of pudding, with maple and rice krispies, sends you off on a few sweet bites that left me appreciative and satisfied, not scowling from dessert deprivation. (Sardine notes that they're considering adding soft-serve, which is one of very few ways this restaurant could make me happier.)
Authentic or not, an izakaya should be as much about drinking as eating. I'd happily come back to Sardine for a drink and a few bites; well, I would if I had any confidence I could get a seat at the bar—this place is packed. Brian Bartels does great work with a short cocktail menu, here, as at his other places: focused drinks with classic profiles and unexpected elements that complete the cocktail, not distract from it. I'm a fan of the Manhattan-like Midnight in Her Eyes ($13), with Rittenhouse rye, amaro Montenegro, fresh lemon, and Bartels's cherry hazelnut bitters; and the Cousin Scotty Failed His Driving Test ($13; yes, there is a real cousin Scotty.) It's also rare that I look at a list of ten wines by the glass and actually want to drink them all: lots of Loire Valley and a German Pinot Noir I loved.
Back to the menu. If salmon head is a little further than you're willing to go, cross your fingers for a hamachi collar special ($17). Well, cross your fingers for it regardless. "We only have two tonight," our waitress leaned down and told us somewhat conspiratorially. "Get your order in fast." That was about, oh, 5:39pm, nine minutes after opening. A minute after we order ours, the next table snaps up the other. I've never thought much good comes of eating early, but that collar is reason enough to ditch work and head straight to Sardine. It's an impressive and pleasingly diverse portion of fish, some almost creamy in its richness, some flaky, some with crisp around the edges. A bit more accessible than the head; nearly as much of an adventure; every bit as tasty.
Some of Brunet-Benkritly's dishes are beautiful in their audacity, whereas others are simply stunners. On a plate of crisp-fried rice balls—yesterday's rice rolled, breaded, and fried—drape bright cuts of raw fish, changing daily, with spicy mayo, pickled cucumbers, and pea tendrils. In further stories of unorthodox sushi carbs, an elegant stack of Breakfast Pancakes ($15), silver-dollar sized and ethereally light thanks to potato purée and egg white, layer with raw fish and roe in a haphazard stack, as structured and colorful as if plated by a pastry chef.
Other pleasures are homier and of the comfort food sort: crispy chicken ($12) greaseless and crunchy, making you wish all chicken nuggets were plump nubs of leg meat cooked in duck fat before they're panko-breaded and deep-fried. And they get even better with a swipe through aioli, making you wonder why you don't use that as a fried chicken condiment more often. Beef cheek curry ($24) is soul-satisfying and richly flavored, the cuts braised with onion, garlic, parsnips, and Japanese curry powder, the cheeks used not for the novelty factor but because they're as tender and supple as beef can be. And the rice itself, salted and vinegar-ed, is a welcome lift from the meat's almost unbearable richness.
Brunet-Benkritly has a knack for this, remembering little touches that can pull a dish back from the brink of "too much," elements that make you realize someone's sat down and thought, "Could a person actually eat more than a bite of this?" In further evidence: the foie gras and smoked cheddar grilled cheese ($19), which on any other menu would be a greasy novelty and a waste of good foie. Here, not so. "The foie's really subtle," said my dining companion as he bit into it, which is a phrase you don't often hear. It's simply an excellent, gooey, butter-saturated, beautifully executed sandwich with the foie as a delicate accent, pickled cucumbers, and green Tabasco keeping things from getting richer than you can bear.
That I feel confident ordering a foie gras grilled cheese at all, let alone from a more-or-less Japanese restaurant, speaks to the trust I place in Brunet-Benkritly, which in my mind, he's earned over and over at Fedora, and now around the corner as well. "Go with me," this menu says, and you're best-served if you do. Sardine feels like a new restaurant, but the work of a seasoned chef and restaurant group. Which, of course, it is.