The city’s fish face-eating fanatics were left distraught earlier this month when restaurateur Gabriel Stulman and chef Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly closed their eccentric West 10th Street izakaya Chez Sardine for a design and concept revamp (RIP miso maple salmon head). The petite space reemerged last night as Bar Sardine (183 West 10th Street, 646-360-3705), a bar for small plates and cocktails. We stopped in to sample and get the skinny on the new approach.
The design’s been pared down somewhat, with bar and counter seating taking up most of the room and only a few tables placed near the kitchen, which now serves a menu of New American bar food. That means items like a Caesar-esque salad with charred cauliflower florets and house-harvested little gem lettuce covered in parmesan and green goddess dressing (good), which costs more than the $10 burger (better).
With a recipe created for a Montauk Burger Bash from years past, the Fedora burger — which isn’t even served at sister restaurant Fedora — is an excellent entry into the city’s burger lexicon. LaFrieda beef hardly gets my blood pumping anymore (and not just from hardened arteries), but the patty arrives hosting a pick-up sticks game of fried potato slivers, hugged by melted smoked cheddar, and smothered in barbecue mayonnaise. Fries, however, must be ordered separately for $7. The fried potato sticks also make their way into a complimentary bar mix, along with peanuts, cashews, and seaweed.
Smoked chicken rillettes are nearly as rich as a platter of Gruyere grilled cheese, the fatty bird bits smeared onto crostini and sat next to a demure pile of pickled beets and cornichons. And while bar snacks — like black garlic deviled eggs, cod fritters with lemon mayonnaise, and market vegetable crudite — are all familiar territory, they’re noticeably punchy under Brunet-Benkritly’s watch.
Cocktails fall to Stulman’s partner Brian Bartels, who oversees the drinks programs for all of the Little Wisco group restaurants. “I was inspired by the summer and all of the fresh fruit this time of year,” he says, placing down a ‘Save Big Money’ before us. A playful take on a PB+J, it’s neither overly sweet or stylistically saccharine. Peanut-infused pine liqueur, usually a supporting cast member, is the base for the drink, which builds upon that nutty promise with strawberry syrup, lemon juice, and egg whites. The end result winds up being bright and fruity, with only a hint of peanut and dryness from the pine.
Long ago, Bartels tended bar with Jim Meehan back in Wisconsin, and he pays tribute to the famous barman via a drink that features Meehan-backed Banks rum. He’s also managed to recruit Kenta Goto, longtime head bartender of beloved watering hole Pegu Club (where Meehan worked before PDT), to ply his trade here. And while they’ve got the celebrated drink slinger shucking oysters and delicately placing bundles of seaweed on raw bar plates, we hope he’ll get some menu space in due time. Bartel’s cocktails are indubitably easy sippers, but having Goto on the team unduly represented is like keeping Kobe Bryant benched.
End the night with a black pepper grasshopper, which Bartels says maybe turned into soft serve (the restaurant currently offers no dessert). The dessert drink mingles Kringle Cream, a Wisconsin-made creation similar to Bailey’s, with Tempus Fugit creme de cacao, almond milk, and Wondermint liqueur from Wisconsin’s Death’s Door distillery. Assaulted with mint, cream, and chocolate, the black pepper barely registers. Bar Sardine on the other hand, is loud and clear.
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