Madison's Sardine a pricey but tasty treat

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By Bill Livick, Special to The Gazette
Thursday, August 14, 2014

MADISON—Looking for a nice place to eat on a special occasion?

A friend and I had a birthday to celebrate, and we found the perfect place.

We sat on the patio of Sardine restaurant and watched a full moon rise over Lake Monona as we sipped beers and enjoyed the fare from one of the city's best kitchens.

Sardine, the Mediterranean-inspired restaurant on Williamson Street near the end of John Nolan Drive, made its appearance in Madison in 2006. It has been lauded for its fine food and ambiance ever since.

Co-owners and chefs John Gadau and Phillip Hurley transformed what had been a turn-of-the-century brick machine factory into an upscale, stylish bistro. Their menu has a French influence and focuses on a selection of thoughtful options.

Most entrees cost more than $20. Sardine also has a bar menu with burgers and sandwiches at less than half the price of a typical entree.

The restaurant is a large, open space with a few small nooks that offer a bit more intimacy. Heavy structural beams from the building's factory days are now integrated into a classy space that exudes good taste and comfort.

A row of plate-glass windows affords a generous view of the lake and lets in natural light.

Unfortunately, like most big restaurants these days, the noise level can be hard to take when the bar and dining rooms are busy. That was another reason we appreciated the al fresco seating.

The menu offers nine starters and a half-dozen salads. The hors d'oeuvres list includes seared scallops (two for $17), a charcuterie plate ($15), grilled asparagus and prosciutto ($11), steamed mussels with frites and mayonnaise ($14) and smoked salmon ($14), among other treats.

The country pâté ($9) comes with grilled rustic bread, celeriac rémoulade, pickled onions and cornichons with Dijon mustard on the side.

Our server brought a basket of warm sourdough bread with butter to get things started. We shared the pâté and a house salad of mixed greens, Bibb lettuce, shallots, chickpeas and beets with a champagne-tarragon vinaigrette ($7).

My friend J.P. was impressed with his main course: pan-seared arctic char ($25), a fish whose flavor hinted of salmon and lake trout in one tender, flaky fillet. It came on a bed of sweet pea, fava bean and ham risotto, with a petite asparagus and pea shoot salad.

Arctic char is a member of the salmon family and the most common freshwater fish in Iceland. Sardine's kitchen prepared it perfectly.

The risotto that comes with the fish is seasoned with chili oil, lending a sharp spiciness that my friend thought was not a great match with the fish.

Even stronger flavors were in an order of penne pasta with smoked salmon ($18). Generous amounts of salmon dominated a mix of al dente pasta and roasted cauliflower, sweet peas and salty, pungent capers. The dish is further seasoned with lemon, olive oil and chili flake, with garlic breadcrumbs thrown in for texture.

Some diners might be put off by a recipe with so much going on, but I welcomed it—one small bite at a time, savoring its complexity.

A house-made blueberry sorbet, sitting on a “nest” of meringue and garnished
with fresh blueberries and dark chocolate, was simply
an amazing dessert ($7). The crunchy sweetness of the meringue complemented the silky sorbet in flavor and texture, while the blueberries and a drizzle of dark chocolate added a rich decadence.

Service at Sardine is first rate. The business has a good-sized parking lot behind the building, which was full the night of our visit. Public lots and street parking also are close by.

Sardine has a bar menu that makes the restaurant an affordable option. You'll pay more to order from the main menu, but food this good often comes at a steep price.

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