The best way to rediscover sardines— and overcome residual aversion based on the tins of childhood—is to eat them fresh, just as diners graduated from canned tuna to grilled tuna to tuna tartare. (“It’s phenomenal how it spread,” Nancy Oakes, the chef of the popular Boulevard, in San Francisco, told me during the tuna expedition. “People don’t eat much cooked tuna anymore.”) Almost any ambitious restaurant has grilled tuna on the menu, cooked to remain raw in the middle. My uncharitable theory is that people like grilled tuna or salmon because it’s good for them and has very little flavor—just a bland richness. Sardines do have flavor. The fresh sardines that come to restaurants are about 6 inches long, and with their slim bodies and silvery skin they arrive on a plate looking as pretty as trout. But the taste is trout with character. (The trout you get in restaurants and markets is farmed and pallid.)I'll admit I'm not chomping at the bit to go out and get some tinned sardines, but I have had several very good experiences with the li'l guys, esp. in tapas form and on salads.
I go frequently to Rendezvous, a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Steve Johnson, the chef, almost always has grilled sardines on the menu. The height of the season is summer, but he also buys sardines frozen, and always from the same Portuguese fishmonger; the fresh sardines available on the East Coast come from across the Atlantic and from the Mediterranean. Johnson, himself an “amateur fisherman,” defends oily fish like mackerel and bluefish, a great Northeast treat: “When they’re really fresh, they’re pristine, and they smell the way they’re supposed to—clean and like the sea.” Johnson serves sardines with classic accompaniments to oily fish, such as a fennel and black-olive salad with preserved-lemon vinaigrette, and he likes them with smoked paprika, too.
Most home cooks, of course, can find only canned sardines—and some chefs are not above serving them. Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef of Prune, in New York, serves unclichéd food you might eat at home. But one cliché she likes, and has made a specialty, is canned sardines on Triscuits with mustard. “They got me through some very lean times,” she told me. Now she charges $5 for a whole tin’s worth with Triscuits, Maille brand Dijon mustard, and cornichons. The brand she chose after extensive tasting is Ruby, from Morocco. I, too, found Moroccan sardines to be my favorite after I tasted every kind of canned sardine I could find (see sidebar, “Unpacking Packed Sardines”).
(via Matthew Yglesias)