So Tony Mantuano comes to Luca d’Italia, and we cook up a storm, and everyone loves the food and we get compliments all around. The cooks celebrate in the kitchen after, drinking wine and eating sardines, and what struck me—what struck us all really, was the great flavor of these little fish. In truth, sardines alone have very little flavor–they’re all texture and preparation. These were bigger, thumb-sized and moist, and Tony had only slightly pickled and marinated them in really good extra virgin olive oil, so they carried a slightly sweet acidity and a nice, fleshy bite. Truly simple and beautiful. I wanted something like this on my own menu.
I set about finding a sardine source. Turns out local purveyors don’t carry them, because nobody uses them–and nobody uses them because guests won’t eat them. I’d known this about sardines, that they’ve been an unpopular fish with a stinking reputation. I put them on past Luca and Mizuna menus where they went unordered, ultimately eaten by servers and cooks. But times change. Palates change.
I Googled “fresh sardines.” I found some online, and proceeded to order five pounds, at ten dollars a pound, plus an extra seven dollars a pound for shipping. Seventeen dollars for a pound of sardines in the peak of their season. Should be spectacular.
We could hardly wait the four days, kitchen buzzing and excited, thinking ahead for the dishes in which they could be used—Dave with a great pasta idea, Hunter on amuse, me with a simple bruschetta. The fish arrived completely beat up, their eyes cloudy, their color dull. They smelled trenchy. Back to the drawing board. (A side note here: one of many, many small and worthwhile reasons that good restaurants are expensive.)
Hunter tried the local purveyor with better luck—same price per pound, but no shipping–and we got five pound. Five awful, sucky pounds.
Finally, Tony gave me the name of his fish purveyor in Chicago. I made a phone call and spoke to a great guy, who was by chance about to receive a hundred pounds of sardines. My cost: $4.95 a pound plus another five a pound for shipping (so we save five bucks a pound from the original online source). Our hopes were raised once again—higher, in fact. After all, we’d seen this product, tasted it, been referred to it by one of the best chefs in the country.
Wednesday, ten pounds of sardines arrive. They are beautiful—clean, and shiny. No smell, fabulous skin, clear eyes. Scaled, even. Hunter and I take on the task of cleaning all these tiny fish; after about an hour of eviscerating, filleting, and boning we are left with 120 pristine sardine fillets—the best I’ve ever seen. We attempt a simple brine (white wine, lemon juice, coriander, black pepper corns, bay leaf, dill, tarragon, and white wine vinegar with just a touch of sugar). The pickling juice is heated, to release the flavors of the ingredients, then cooled down and poured over our little fish. The big unknown here was how long it would take to cure–a trade secret we wanted to figure out on our own. Hunter and I checked the sardines every hour. At the end of the night, we determined to let them go until morning—which proved to be the perfect amount of time. Eighteen hours after their liquid bath, the fishies got to rest in a lovely olive oil with garlic, fresh tarragon, and dill. Ready to serve. The great thing about this, if we keep the sardines packed in this oil, they continue to improve as they sit, and the shelf life is roughly two weeks—a solid, long life on a restaurant shelf.
Now to create a menu item that we hope will sell–as I’ve mentioned, sardines are not an easy sell. What might compel a diner to actually give them a try? Hunter, Dave, and I go back and forth: pasta, crudo, grilled? We decide that a simple bruschetta might give these guys a friendly name. The dish: our marinated sardines, salmoriglio sauce and slightly grilled frisee on a crunchy, garlic-rubbed baguette slice.
Is this dish a whopping success? Flavor-wise, yes. The jury’s still out on the ordering side. We sell about two plates a night, outright. We sneak another two orders or so onto the tasting menu (to raves). It feels like people are coming around. And if they don’t? Well, that just means we get to enjoy them here, in the kitchens on Seventh and Grant over wine and great company—and try again in another couple of years.