There are certain ways to gauge your honest reaction to a new restaurant. Have you been back since your first try? Do you have any favorite dishes that you remember in full, almost clinical detail, every time you're hungry? Are you returning with friends, out of a sheer generous impulse, to share the culinary wealth and ' okay ' split the bill?
Using that survey as a measure, and using just about any other standard, Sardine is a flat-out, unqualified success, and probably the smartest, most assured and most consistent restaurant to open in Madison in years. Have we been back? Four times already, the last visit hauling along a party of six friends. Any favorite dishes? A number, though the duck confit salad, the kind of dish that you want to eat on a weekly basis, has already entered my pantheon of local culinary legends.
Why is Sardine succeeding so emphatically, when so many new local restaurants are only partial successes at best? Mostly it has to do with an odd mix of caution and confidence. Marigold Kitchen owners Phillip Hurley and John Gadau could have probably opened a new restaurant a long time ago, based on the sheer success of Marigold's luxe lunches alone. But instead of making a fumbling dash to cash in, they waited until they had the right space, concept and menu, and what you feel most when you enter Sardine is the sheer intelligence of a place that knows what it is doing and why.
The epic-sized, lakeside dining room in Machinery Row, at the western edge of Williamson Street, is a solid statement of ambition in itself. A mix of industrial loft and French brasserie, of wood beams and gleaming floor planks, the huge room still, somehow, feels intimate ' though some of that's a forced intimacy. The acoustics mean you're going to be leaning in to hear anything your fellow diners say, once the room fills up.
But you're probably going to be leaning in anyway, to catch whatever drops from their forks. Sardine's big, glossy and gently priced dishes exude the same confidence as the room. Take that duck confit salad. This stupefyingly good plate ' at $9, maybe the best buy per bite in town ' seamlessly layers flavors and textures. The smoky strips of duck play off the crunch of crisped potatoes and snapping green beans, and off the silkier cap of a poached egg, its buttery yolk mixing with the bright, citrusy vinaigrette dressing. On a hot summer day, that plate is all you really need, along with the kitchen's basket of crusty breads, varying by the night (the sourdough is always good).
But when a restaurant is this good, it's more a matter of what you want than what you need. And you'll also want, if you taste it once, the starter of seared scallops laid over white bean puree, and paired with oven roasted tomatoes, olive tapenade and crispy leeks ' a dish that sounds complicated but tastes simple, because it distills the purest flavors from each ingredient, and then lets them harmonize peacefully.
Leap to the entrees, and the successes keep coming. The mafaldine manages to be rustic, hearty and rich without turning cloying. The thick, shaggy strips of al dente pasta are tossed with grilled fennel, Manila clams that actually taste like something, and chunks of sausage that are good enough to stand on their own.
Just as winning is the pan-seared skate wing, which arrives fanned out on its plate under a coat of lemon-caper butter sauce that literally gleams. The salty capers cut the sweetness of the firm fish itself, and of that translucent sauce. Also an ode to seductive cooking: a textbook perfect, pan-seared salmon served with French lentils and a braised veal daube that may be too fatty for some tastes, but does justice to tradition.
Even the kitchen's missteps are, at least, bold ones. The namesake sardine is just too big, briney, boney and reptilian (and I usually like sardines). The picollo frito, an appetizer plate of fried vegetables and seafood that changes daily, is too heavily battered. The Parmesan polenta is too rich for a summer dish, and the steak frites will have a hard time winning Midwestern fans. While it's true to French tradition ' which means the grilled rib eye looks thin and louche, like something that smoked too many cigarettes ' it isn't going to satisfy tenderloin-fed carnivores.
But desserts make up for any hard feelings. Key lime pie and a very fat ice cream sandwich in mint sauce are perfect August desserts. It's the moist, golden-yellow genoise cake topped with fresh berries, though, that tastes like Sardine's best final word: It's both classic and fresh, clean and opulent, and it doesn't doubt itself for a second.