Seeking Out Sardines

In which we visit a pair of prime dining spots for the tiny savories

Catalan flatbread with Spanish sardines at Barlata (Photo by John Anderson)

If you've got beetles in your semolina, that's a problem. If you've got Beatles in your semolina, on the other hand, it's because of that song "I Am the Walrus," in which John Lennon lilts "Semolina Pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower." With me so far? Now we're gonna ditch the semolina and leave those erstwhile mop tops and their Dada-inflected ditty behind, and we're gonna focus on the pilchard. Because pilchards are, after all, sardines.

"The terms 'sardine' and 'pilchard' are not precise and what is meant depends on the region," Wikipedia schools us. "One criterion suggests fish shorter in length than six inches are sardines, and larger fish are pilchards. ... FishBase, a comprehensive database of information, calls at least six species 'pilchard,' over a dozen just 'sardine,' and many more with the two basic names qualified by various adjectives."

In any case, by either name, these things are small and oily fish in the herring family Clupeidae, and they're tasty AF. That last part is why foodies tend to seek them out, whether looking for canned (ubiquitous) or fresh (scarce) examples of the piscine goodness.

Here in Austin there's at least one eatery that's got sardines on the regular menu, and another that cooks up fresh ones whenever possible. (There's also the Around Austin, TX blog, from back in 2013, listing what stores in town stock which canned varieties – but its sardine post may be obsolete by this point, and, look, we're talking about restaurants right now.)

Daniel Olivella, chef and co-owner of the tapas-forward Barlata on South Lamar, knows sardines. "I grew up eating them, in the Mediterranean," says the Barcelona-born Olivella, whose new book Catalan Food was just released from Clarkson Potter. "Sardines are grilled fresh there – with garlic and olive oil, or with a red wine vinaigrette. I used to get them fresh when I was cooking in San Francisco, and I would grill them. But even then, the fresh ones were sometimes too big. And sardines, they've got to be small. Too big, it's no good. And I haven't found a source for them in Austin. If you know of one, please tell me about it."

We may be able to help the man in the next part of this very article – read on, reader! But Olivella's popular venue nonetheless has sardines on the regular menu. So, how ...?

"I use the canned ones," says Olivella. "I put them on a coca, a Catalan-style pizza – with chorizo, some arugula, a bit of red pepper. The brand I use – a friend of mine is an importer in Seattle, and always has the good-quality products – I use Matiz. We also use sardines for a variation of a pincho, put them on a bit of toasted bread with a shishito pepper. It's one of many pinchos, the little snacks we do."

There are also plenty of little snacks – and full-on entrées – at Justine's Brasserie on the Eastside. And while sardines aren't a steady offering at the French-inspired nightspot, they – fresh ones – make for an occasional and highly anticipated item on the specials board.

"I love sardines, that's probably the main reason why we do them," says Justine's executive chef Taylor Chambers. "We'll take the whole fish and debone the entire inside, but leave the outside whole, fill it with some herbs and wrap it with butcher's twine, grill it, add some sautéed tomatoes, some white wine, pour it over the fish. Really simple like that. Or we've done it where we fillet them completely and make a – kind of like a pickling solution? But it's the heads from the fish, onions, garlic, vinegar, some sherry, some wine – and we make a warm sauce with that, let it cool off a little bit, and then pour it over all the fillets with some oil and let it sit for three days. And they'll kind of resemble canned sardines – because they're in the liquid – but this has got a little more acid than a canned sardine, and the fish isn't overcooked, they're really nice and, ah – juicy, I guess you could say."

“And canned sardines? Absolutely. Crackers, sardines, a little bit of yellow mustard. That’s a beautiful little snack.” – Justine’s Executive Chef Taylor Chambers

And, just to be precise, these aren't canned?

"We do them fresh," says Chambers. "We get them from a company called Minamoto. They're in town, and they work with really nice Japanese and seafood products – we use them mostly for seafood. Every now and then I'll get a message from our representative, and she'll say, 'We have fresh sardines, do you want 'em?' And I'll always take them. They never stick around for too long. Availability really depends on their season, but if I can get 'em, I'll make 'em, and we'll have them as specials this fall."

But regular canned sardines are enjoyed by Justine's head chef, too, right? At least as an at-home sort of thing? Which probably started, as for many of us, in childhood?

Chambers smiles. "No, I don't think I liked them very much when I was a kid," he says. "But a lot of things I like now, I hated when I was a kid. I used to hate mustard – mustard's great now. And canned sardines? Absolutely. Crackers, sardines, a little bit of yellow mustard. That's a beautiful little snack."

Canned or fresh, Matiz or Minamoto, sardine or pilchard, these little fish are an excellent source of those omega-3 fatty acids that the nutritionists keep saying we should have more of. So: flavor, health, and a diversion from the seafood same-ol', same-ol'. Now if we could just stop picturing the damned things all encrusted with semolina and climbing up the Eiffel Tower, we'd be good to go.

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sardines, Justine's Brasserie, Barlata

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