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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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Big fish story
Sardine sets a new standard in Madison dining
Sardine's biggest lesson is a simple one: There's virtue in patience.

"Last night everything was perfectly aligned," says John Gadau, sitting in the sunlit bar of his restaurant, Sardine, on an August afternoon.

"There was a James Taylor concert, and the students were all moving apartments, and we ended up serving 300 people. But the funny thing was that although it was a crazy night, it didn't feel like it. There were people just hanging out, reading newspapers, and the bar was full of groups drinking champagne and eating oysters, and there were families sitting outside on the terrace in the sun, and friends in the dining room pulling tables together and sharing food. And it all flowed very naturally. It was just exactly what we wanted, what we had always had in mind."

Gadau could be speaking for a broad cross-section of Madisonians who, for a long time, have had the same thing in mind. In fact, the almost immediate, seismic success of Sardine (617 Williamson St.), which opened its French doors this summer, seems in some ways ordained. Despite all the local restaurant premieres in recent years, there hasn't been a kitchen that popped up so fully formed and completely conceived. And no new restaurant has come as close, until now, to suggesting that Madison may finally realize its potential as a dining destination.

The town, of course, is no culinary slacker, and Sardine hardly debuts in a vacuum. When Ovens of Brittany helped wake up local taste buds in the '70s and inspired Odessa Piper, who went on to open her landmark L'Etoile and popularize the Dane County Farmers' Market, Madison was already defining the basics of new American cuisine: slow cooking, local sourcing and the reverence for regional, seasonal ingredients and clean technique.

To some extent, Madison's status as an early pioneer paid off in a constellation of strong, independent restaurants (Wasabi, Muramoto, Tornado, Lombardino's), but the broad network of truly exciting, memorable kitchens that always seemed just about to materialize, never really did. All those suburban chains and faux-hipster downtown bistros that have opened with pod-like frequency seemed to signal the worst: Madison was never going to get the second wave of restaurants it really deserved. That's why the sheer sense of relief that prevails at Sardine is so palpable - along with the feeling that this may be the start of something large, if only because it offers Madison a template for how to launch a smart restaurant.

Sardine's biggest lesson is a simple one: There's virtue in patience. Given the going culture, that's a crucial lesson in itself. At a time when any telegenic sous-chef can morph directly into a celebrity chef without breaking much of a sweat in the kitchen, the old-fogey concept of a slow apprenticeship is fading.

But the Chicago-born Gadau and Phillip Hurley - Sardine's co-owners and chefs - braced themselves from the start for a long culinary education. Gadau worked his way through the kitchens of Los Angeles, and Hurley plated lots of meals in San Francisco dining rooms. When Hurley moved back to Chicago in 1997, to buy a three-flat near Wrigley Field with his wife, and Gadau showed up as a renter, their parallel histories merged in an inevitable epiphany: They would launch their own restaurant.

"We looked at Chicago locations," Gadau says, "but we didn't want to deal with all the intensity - the valet parking, the expense - of opening a business in Chicago. We didn't really do any demographic studies or business models. Madison just drew us, the quality of life here, the fact that the town was more relaxed. So we moved here in 2000, really just on an instinct, and we decided to open a breakfast and lunch place because we could go home at night to our families."

The result was their first solo venture, Marigold Kitchen, right off the Capitol Square, and another culinary rite of passage. "I'd never done breakfast before," Hurley laughs, "and didn't really know how to make eggs. When we were figuring out the menu someone said, 'And of course you'll be using a 10-inch omelet pan,' and I said, 'Um, oh yeah, sure. Of course.'"

Fast learners, though, the two cooks mastered breakfast and lunch, and their luxe brunch menu quickly turned Marigold into a downtown landmark. People started asking: What are you going to open next?

The fact that nothing did open next was Sardine's second important lesson. Let other restaurateurs, brought up on the prevailing American business model of explosive expansion, quickly spawn too many satellite restaurants too fast, until no one is left in the kitchen except the accountant and a junior cook or two. Hurley and Gadau just waited, in no hurry to expand until they could envision exactly what kind of restaurant they wanted, and the precise sensibility of the place.

What they didn't want, as Gadau puts it, "was some eclectic fusion place with super-expensive Latin-Asian food. And we didn't want to walk around in our fluffy chefs hats talking about food and sounding pretentious. We just wanted a place that didn't take itself too seriously, where people could drop in and nosh and feel relaxed and have good food in an adult atmosphere."

And they knew exactly which location would match that attitude. "We always said if we were going to do a dinner place, it would be this exact spot, in Machinery Row," says Hurley, "and we just watched and waited until it opened up."

That may explain why even Sardine's physical space feels so assured. The spot at the intersection of John Nolen Drive and Williamson Street was a big, raw space when Hurley and Gadau moved in. Varnishing the wide plank Douglas fir wood floors, working with recycled barn wood to make the cabinetry, banquettes and tables, adding a long pewter bar surrounded by tile floors and a 20-seat patio overlooking Lake Monona, they saw a theme come together. "Call it old-world industrial," Gadau says.

The real bones of a restaurant, though, is its menu, and this may be Sardine's biggest surprise and best lesson: The chefs are actually in the kitchen helping make your dinner, a freakish anomaly at a time when too many name chefs never light an oven. The result is a passionate kind of cooking that Hurley and Gadau are hard-pressed to define, though partly it's defined by a thankful indifference to trends. The kitchen mixes accents, but there is no self-conscious, confused tango of lemongrass crossed with wasabi. The fashion for chemistry-lab, sci-fi whimsy - the hot ice creams and vapor-erupting entrées - is happily avoided. And while the best heartland ingredients are part of Sardine's mix, there's no sense of culinary dogma, the purist tyranny of the perfect naked beet and the uncooked carrot.

So how to name the cuisine? The best Gadau can do is to call Sardine's menu Midwestern, French-inspired bistro with Mediterranean touches. But mostly, like the best dining, it's just a study in sensuality, a portrait of two chefs at their peak, having fun with food and spoon-feeding you a buffet that's rich but clean, layered with flavor but never too complicated.

The payoff: A duck confit salad that plays snapping green beans off smoky shredded duck and the oozing yellow yolk of a poached egg; the shaggy strips of mafaldine pasta tossed with dusky chunks of sausage, grilled fennel and Manila clams; a lobster-sweet pan-seared skate wing sitting under a glossy, almost pearlized coat of lemon butter; the pinkest grilled salmon nudging lentils that actually pop with taste; a moist genoise cake piled high with fresh blueberries, raspberries and strawberries, all crowned with crème frache.

Is this our dining future? Probably not. The fringe of chain restaurants thickens around Madison, too many successful restaurants will continue to expand too quickly, and too many mediocre restaurants will keep opening. But at least Sardine sets a model that's right for Madison: Become part of the community, distill your own ideas, and take advantage of Madison's unique conditions for dining success. "In a bigger city," Hurley notes, "things come and go too quickly, and everyone is too focused on trends. Longevity of a place is more sustainable in Madison."

If those lessons promise at least a few new Sardines a year, the city framed by a ripe, Midwestern harvest may finally meet its promise. And for now, at least the party continues at Sardine, where most nights lately feel a little crazy, but also perfectly aligned.

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