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Chez Sardine Sells Fine Sushi at Moderate Price: Review

February 06, 2013

Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly

Chef Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly behind the sushi bar at the West Village's Chez Sardine. He also works at the very good Fedora around the block. Photographer: Henry Hargreaves/Chez Sardine via Bloomberg

Good sushi tends to be expensive sushi. The elite venues are quiet, omakase-heavy, and spicy tuna-free.

Not Chez Sardine, which plays lots of Michael Jackson, doesn’t offer omakase and proudly offers spicy tuna. The chefs stop and clap in unison when Hall and Oates comes over the sound system. Take that, Masa.

The only revered thing at this quirky Manhattan spot is a giant photo behind the bar of the Karate Kid’s “Mr. Miyagi,” equipped with his famous fly-catching chopsticks.

Against all odds, most of it works (though you should probably skip that spicy tuna roll ($8), bland and mushy as a Taylor Swift ballad).

This is all the creation of Gabe Stulman, the young West Village restaurateur whose four other packed venues -- Perla, Joseph Leonard, Jeffrey’s Grocery, and Fedora -- are devoid of pretention and apparently immune to economic downturns.

Free Sweet

Chez Sardine has no pre-theater prix-fixe, no tasting menu and, oddly, no sardines (at least on the regular menu; sometimes they’re offered as a special). Also no dishes over $22.

The only dessert is maple pudding with syrup and rice crisps. It’s free and it’s awesome, courtesy of Fedora’s Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly, who now presides over Chez Sardine.

This chef hails from Montreal’s foie gras-heavy Au Pied de Cochon, which explains the duck liver grilled cheese sandwich ($18) but not its mealy execution.

Your amuse bouche is a bowl of sour daikon topped with togarashi, scallions and umami-fueled bonito.

Cod fritters ($6) pack a chewy punch. And stellar chicken nuggets, loaded with flavor, are destined for dunking in kimchee puree. This should all be consumed with a fragrant Alsatian Gewurztraminer ($14.50) or a musky Savoie ($11.50).

Sushi is easy here: Order everything. There are only nine or so selections, and one is simply an excellent oyster on the half shell, with the tartness of apple foam giving way to a clean taste of the sea.

Meaty Slab

Nigiri ($4-$7) are better than any I’ve had at Blue Ribbon or other mid-range raw fish restaurants. No need for messy dipping at the table. Sardine sends out perfectly sauced slices of fish, served at the optimum temperature for each one.

There’s no overfished blue fin tuna. Instead we get more sustainable, full flavored alternatives like Spanish mackerel (with leeks), arctic char (smoked), fatty Hamachi (with ginger) and beef tongue (with ponzu and jalapeno).

My only gripe is with the rice, which isn’t as sublime as the fish; you don’t get the warm rice/cool flesh contrast that makes for transcendental tastings. Then again, a surf-and-turf hand roll of cold urchin and cool beef wrapped in seaweed is a $7 ticket to nirvana.

Thanks to a gentle pass through the deep fryer, avocado, shrimp and tuna in a maki roll retain their clear, clean flavors. The $17 entree easily feeds three; so does a silky, meaty slab of pork belly for $21

The mushy three-bite Grinnell caviar toast ($17) lacks texture and flavor. The one-note egg should be replaced with a better sturgeon variety.

Briny Bliss

An order of “breakfast pancakes” sets the fish-egg equation right. A stack of yogurt-drizzled griddle cakes offset the briny bliss of salmon roe, as well as a soft mash of fish tartar. The $13 dish is a brilliant low-brow riff on caviar blini.

Want a proper filet? Sorry, there’s only miso-maple salmon heads ($12). It’s a sweet, succulent exercise in using chopsticks to pry away fatty, oily flesh.

The bill: About $150 for two. That’s half the cost of a date at Gari or 15 East, both better venues, neither affordable on a weekly basis. That’s why we have Chez Sardine.

Rating: **

The Bloomberg Questions

Price: By Masa standards, cheap.

Sound Level: Anywhere from 70-80; usually reasonable.

Date Place: Yes.

Special Feature: Solid $22 braised beef curry for meat eaters.

Inside Tip: Stellar pork-unagi hand roll tastes like a good tuna fish sandwich.

Back on My Own Dime: Often for the uni and beef hand roll.

Chez Sardine is at 183 W. 10th Street. Information: +1-646- 360-3705 or http://chezsardine.com.


What the Stars Mean:

****         Incomparable food, service, ambience.
***          First-class of its kind.
**           Good, reliable.
*            Fair.
(No stars)   Poor

Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.

(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Tumblr at www.thepricehike.com or www.thebaddeal.com)

Muse highlights include hot art, theater.

To contact the writer of this column: Ryan Sutton in New York at rsutton1@bloomberg.net or qualityrye on http://twitter.com/qualityrye

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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