The best way to rediscover sardines— and overcome residual aversion based on the tins of childhood—is to eat them fresh, just as diners graduated from canned tuna to grilled tuna to tuna tartare. (“It’s phenomenal how it spread,” Nancy Oakes, the chef of the popular Boulevard, in San Francisco, told me during the tuna expedition. “People don’t eat much cooked tuna anymore.”) Almost any ambitious restaurant has grilled tuna on the menu, cooked to remain raw in the middle. My uncharitable theory is that people like grilled tuna or salmon because it’s good for them and has very little flavor—just a bland richness. Sardines do have flavor. The fresh sardines that come to restaurants are about 6 inches long, and with their slim bodies and silvery skin they arrive on a plate looking as pretty as trout. But the taste is trout with character. (The trout you get in restaurants and markets is farmed and pallid.)
I go frequently to Rendezvous, a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Steve Johnson, the chef, almost always has grilled sardines on the menu. The height of the season is summer, but he also buys sardines frozen, and always from the same Portuguese fishmonger; the fresh sardines available on the East Coast come from across the Atlantic and from the Mediterranean. Johnson, himself an “amateur fisherman,” defends oily fish like mackerel and bluefish, a great Northeast treat: “When they’re really fresh, they’re pristine, and they smell the way they’re supposed to—clean and like the sea.” Johnson serves sardines with classic accompaniments to oily fish, such as a fennel and black-olive salad with preserved-lemon vinaigrette, and he likes them with smoked paprika, too.
Judy Rodgers, the chef of Zuni Cafe, in San Francisco, has been serving fresh Pacific sardines since the late 1980s, and she buys them whenever Paul Johnson, at the Monterey Fish Market, gets them in. She bases her recipes on dishes she tasted in Italy made with either sardines or anchovies, which are more prized there: deep-fried sardines with sage leaves and (her modification) lemon slices; grilled sardines served with salsa verde or marinated in her version of chimichurri, the peppery Argentinean marinade. Rodgers told me that if the day’s fresh sardines don’t sell out (they usually do), she grills or fries what’s left at the end of the night and stores the fish in a sauce or marinade, to be put on crostini (often “slathered with aioli”) and served with drinks—a method she recommends for the home cook who can find fresh sardines.
Most home cooks, of course, can find only canned sardines—and some chefs are not above serving them. Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef of Prune, in New York, serves unclichéd food you might eat at home. But one cliché she likes, and has made a specialty, is canned sardines on Triscuits with mustard. “They got me through some very lean times,” she told me. Now she charges $5 for a whole tin’s worth with Triscuits, Maille brand Dijon mustard, and cornichons. The brand she chose after extensive tasting is Ruby, from Morocco. I, too, found Moroccan sardines to be my favorite after I tasted every kind of canned sardine I could find (see sidebar, “Unpacking Packed Sardines”).
One place you’ll be hard-pressed to find fresh sardines on the menu is in Monterey. Mark Shelley, a documentary filmmaker who works in a building next to the one that still houses the laboratory of Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts, the model for “Doc” in Cannery Row (it’s unmarked and not open to the public), is trying to find investors who, like him, think that young people can and should be lured into discovering the virtues of sardines—maybe by calling them something else. The one time he found sardines on the menu at the Sardine Factory, a landmark Monterey restaurant, they were canned, “beautifully presented” with chopped egg and croutons, and lovely with Chardonnay. Where did they come from? he asked the server, who “hemmed and hawed” and finally revealed what the can said: “Product of Latvia.”
I found out more from Bert Cutino, the big, amiable owner of the restaurant, who remembers when Cannery Row was “going huckety-buck” and he would take his father’s catch to the canneries. Workers responded to the sounding of horns signaling a new delivery of sardines for processing; you could identify Cannery Row from afar by the smell. “We kind of prayed for it to disappear,” Cutino told me.
Most workers wouldn’t think of eating canned sardines at home, let alone cook fresh ones. Today Cutino calls sardines a “hard sell”: Diners don’t want them even if he marinates them in vinegar or uses other tricks to make them taste “less fishy.” To me, though, really fresh sardines don’t taste fishy at all—and as for canned, it’s time to rediscover and embrace an indispensable staple.