Chez Sardine is the most recent addition to the restaurant empire known as Little Wisco. Created by Madison, Wisconsin, native Gabe Stulman, the chain fans out from Sheridan Square, where it was partly inspired by Kettle of Fish, a rickety subterranean bar favored by Packer fans and other Badger State beer drinkers. With his plaid shirt, bushy black beard, and stocking cap, Stulman can often be seen crisscrossing the square, looking like a North woodsman checking his traps for muskrats. Previously, Stulman was front-of-the-house director at Little Owl and Market Table, another restaurant group a half-mile to the southeast. After leaving those places three years ago, he launched Little Wisco, which has come to include Joseph Leonard, Jeffrey’s Grocery, Fedora, Perla, and now Chez Sardine.
It’s installed in a former wine bar at the illogical intersection of West 10th and West 4th streets. Chez Sardine’s name doesn’t refer to a fish being offered but to the crowdedness of the room. Seven tables, a bar, and a sushi bar vie for floor space with customers waiting impatiently to get seats. Yet turning space-challenged premises into dining gold is Stulman’s specialty, and the wraparound windows with expansive views of the neighborhood and deep niche of fish prints—as if one were looking into a 19th-century aquarium—add a sense of acreage.
Those previous Little Wisco eateries have included an oyster bar attached to a small grocery store offering, among other things, toilet paper, and a Montreal-style bistro with Asian and Italian elements. The theme of Chez Sardine is also somewhat confused. The place is described as an izakaya, a Japanese tavern where a typical menu might run to fried snacks, over-rice dishes, soups, and a scattering of English and American pub grub. Stulman’s obsession with elaborate sushi disqualifies Chez Sardine as a real izakaya, and so do the invented cocktails, tiny menu, and high prices. But so what? Chez Sardine often diddles spectacularly with Japanese food, via chef Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly, who once worked at Montreal’s pig-part palace Au Pied de Cochon, and currently also chefs at Fedora.
You will find a few izakaya standards at Chez Sardine. The most startling is a huge salmon head, which stares unblinkingly up at you as it swims to your table. At $15, it’s also the biggest bargain on the menu, providing plenty of tasty flesh and crisp skin—though extracting both proves a grisly challenge. Also izakaya-ish is beef-cheek curry ($24)—melting wads of tender meat served over rice in a trickle of thin gravy. It’s delectable, though no one would think it was an actual curry, Japanese or otherwise. Indeed, the section it comes from—Large Plates—is the iffiest on the menu. It also includes a way-too-rich foie-gras-toasted-cheese sandwich that seems like a throwback to Au Pied de Cochon, and a batter-covered maki roll that might be mistaken for a deep-fried burrito. Except that it arrives cut up.
By contrast, the Snacks, Sushi Bar, and Small Plates sections contain lots of good stuff. Deeply browned and surfing a wave of applesauce, brussels sprouts ($8) remind you what seasonal cooking is all about. Cool iceberg lettuce cut in a wedge and doused with sesame dressing features croutons scampering up its flanks like mountaineers, while excellent cod fritters perfectly imitate their salty Portuguese prototype. Not as satisfactory are the so-called breakfast pancakes ($16), four tiny buttermilk rounds stacked and surrounded with blobs of yogurt, slices of raw fish, and orange salmon roe. Although the overenthusiastic waiters endlessly tout it, the dish suggests nothing so much as a terrible accident at the IHOP.
And then there’s the sushi. The pieces are on the small side, and the list is limited to six types of nigiri-zushi (“finger” sushi), plus a hand roll or two in the Snacks section. The sushi is of the fussed-over variety, yet the flavor schemes are solid, the fish fresh, and the juxtapositions pleasantly novel. A curl of brown Spanish mackerel goes exceedingly well with leeks and potatoes frizzled on top, while sea urchin wrapped in nori conceals a wad of beef underneath, as if the chef were torn between land and sea. Prices run $4 to $8 apiece, and you’d have to eat at least 15 to make a meal. These are really not drinking snacks.
And you don’t get salad or miso soup. On the other hand, you’re eating some of the most interesting sushi in town—and in Little Wisco, too. Just don’t mention that Packers playoff loss.