The Great Escape
Sardine Rouge, as we discovered after our second visit there, has that effect on you. Enter its doors and you exit the daily grind. This is a place where customers are referred to as "sir" and "madam." A place where formally clad waiters gently drape white napkins across laps and attentively replace the shining pieces of Christofle silverware between each course, never once attempting to engage customers in casual conversation. A place where food might be prepared tableside. Where complimentary appetizers arrive just after you've been seated. Where every diner receives a palate-cleansing entremet of sorbet in a sculpted glass flower poised atop a crisp doily. A place where the menu departs from the norm in both content and price, and a place where, if your life at all resembles mine, you can count on escape.
The decor at Sardine Rouge is stunning. If you knew the old Sfuzzi space, then you'll likely stand in awe of the change. Gone is the airy, green bistro, replaced by a look far more dark and dashing, one that is at once retro and contemporary. Thick curtains in royal blue and red dramatically break up the exposed brick wall. A stained glass window swirls sumptuously across the streetfront window, tall banquettes in blue and silver offer intimate seating, and plush blue carpet offset by bold red spirals muffles the noise of busy feet. Overhead, dim neon fixtures with dangling red "sardines" recall the restaurant's odd name, and tiny spotlights on invisible wiring provide the remaining light. The only touch that seems strangely out of place are the dueling television sets suspended overhead at the handsome bar. Ignore them if you can.
I wouldn't exactly call Sardine Rouge a French restaurant but a Continental Dining establishment in the spirit of the old days. It should be said right here and now that the cynic in me took in all of the restaurant's rather overwhelming atmospheric touches and grumbled that while they were exceptional, they alone weren't gimmick enough to blind me if the food wasn't up to par. But as we soon discovered, the food delivered -- and how!
The appetizers we shared -- Oysters Rockefeller with a Pernod Sabayon ($13) and a Pheasant Consomme with a Truffle Quenelle -- were two of the three best I've ever tasted in Austin. (The third was an unforgettable Seafood Napoleon served at Jean-Luc's French Bistro.) Simply the idea of indulging in Oysters Rockefeller over a chilly glass of Alsatian Pinot Gris selected from the restaurant's pricey, book-like wine list felt unusually festive. With the Pernod Sabayon added to the mix, the experience was elevated to the near spiritual. The Pernod wasn't an incidental ingredient. It made its presence known -- the perfect hint of licorice against the clean, green flavor of the spinach-topped oysters. The consomme screamed luxury. It came to the table in a white china tureen, and the waiter engagingly invited me to breathe in its aromatic vapor as he removed the lid. It was crystal clear, as a consomme should be -- something I marvel at, as I've never quite achieved such clarity. And the flavor ... Oh! It was unmistakably something other than beef, chicken, or even veal -- intensely fowl-y, yet exceedingly delicate. The truffle-studded quenelle turned out to be an inspired addition, as the earthiness of the treasured fungus provided a cloying depth of flavor that gave the consomme additional soul.
After our pretty crystal flowers were scraped clean of their sorbet (which, incidentally, was served slightly too frozen to make eating it elegantly easy), we focused our attention on the entrees. The surprise hit of the evening was an English pea cream sauce supporting silver-dollar-sized sea scallops still soft in the middle ($25). I'm generally not a pea lover, preferring to save the little balls for my toddlers' consumption, but I'll now reduce peas to cream sauce whenever I get the chance. The sauce was velvety soft and slightly sweet, dressing up the mildly seasoned scallops with unexpected panache. The entree also featured fat, squid-ink-tinted ravioli stuffed with butternut squash. The dense pocket rivaled the scallops in richness and was a delicious, if somewhat heavy, accent to the plate. Entree #2 was the Veal Marcel ($25), a moist escalope topped with crab and asparagus buoyed by a sauce of seasonal mushrooms and Madeira-spiked au jus. It, too, was enthusiastically consumed, the mahogany-toned au jus notable for its wide variety of mushrooms, among them several rare morels.
Our return trip to Sardine Rouge, understandably, was much anticipated. This time we intended to save room for dessert -- one of the house soufflés ($8) ordered early on in the meal in order to allow time for it to rise to its airy heights. The complimentary appetizer brought out shortly after we were seated was a pretty plate bearing several triangles of the silky house foie gras on toast points alongside a garnish of miniature teardrop tomatoes. The foie gras was soft and smooth, still pink at its heart, making an entree of New York Strip Steak topped with foie gras sound pretty tempting. But we opted for surf selections instead, ordering a Chowder of Wild Mushrooms, Salmon, and Bay Scallops ($8) and a Smoked Salmon Carpaccio ($9) to begin with followed by a Porcini-dusted Redfish Filet ($26) and the decadent Lobster Cardinal (market price).
Once again, the appetizers were outstanding. The chowder was rich and comforting yet still light in the spoon. It was generously studded with mushrooms, among them porcini, oyster, shiitake, and morels. As for the carpaccio, the salmon imitated butter, melting sublimely in the mouth when eaten alone. When paired with the accompanying caviar, capers, potato crisps, and cream, its delicate smoky side became more prominent.
On the main dish front, the redfish filet, an astonishingly large portion, came arched over a mound of crab and crawfish hash supporting a cushion of steamed spinach. A lobster jus studded with fresh fava beans was pooled around it. The dish offered a number of textural contrasts, as the hash and fava beans were both served "al dente" against the softness of the fish and spinach. Flavor contrasts were also at work. The porcini dust turned the fish into a uniquely earthy affair while the fava beans added an interesting touch of ripe greenness to the otherwise mellow sauce.
Unfortunately, the delicate bernaise sauce that crowned the redfish filet had turned into an omelet under a heat lamp or broiler. My request to replace it was expertly handled by one of the two waiters serving at our table, and a freshly made serving of sauce was sent out soon thereafter. This elicited strange comments from waiter #2 who, upon seeing the side of sauce, smugly queried, "Oh? I suppose Madame must really like the sauce? It is good, isn't it?" insinuating that I had been so gauche as to demand "extra" sauce.
The lobster cardinal was a sinfully rich creation, a two-pound portion served au gratin in a cross-section of its shell, then smothered with a creamy cognac sauce accented with mushrooms. If that wasn't enough, the plate also featured mashed potatoes! While the dish was expertly prepared, it was nearly impossible to get around, leading us to launch a lively discussion about how (or whether) those who frequented NYC's Delmonico's at the turn of the century really managed to enjoy multi-course meals of similar abundance and how (or whether) Austin was ready for this kind of indulgence.
Finally, it was time to tackle dessert. The souffle exited the kitchen puffed far beyond the brim of its bowl and once set down between us, was gently cut open and filled with a bittersweet chocolate sauce. It was worth making room for, and every soft spoonful was spoken for, as was every last drop of sauce.
I'll look forward to the day I am able to return to Sardine Rouge. It is a restaurant of excellent caliber, one that Austin should be proud to have. Its menu makes no concessions to our "Southwestern/Asian/Fusion" habit, but I find this a refreshing change of pace. Yes, it's an expensive place, at least by Austin standards. But the creative kitchen talent and incredible attention to esoteric detail make a trip to Sardine Rouge an event well worth saving for.
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