La Sardine, Offally Good

Michael Nagrant / 04.03.06

I never met an organ meat I didn’t like.

This has become my eating mantra. It makes me sound like a culinary bad ass and makes the chicks swoon. Food Network chicks anyway.

Feature a freshly seared kidney or crispy slices of sweetbreads, which are neither sweet, nor bread, rather a thymus gland, and I’ll likely ignore the rest of a menu. That’s what happened last week at the La Sardine, a bistro in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood.

The chef/owner Jean Claude Poilevey opened La Fontaine on North Clark St. in the early 70’s, and is credited with bringing the bistro to Chicago. La Sardine’s been around since 1998, smack across the way from Harpo studios. Rumor has it that the Big O drops by on occasion. Lately, Ms. Winfrey can’t stop talking about how she has recommitted to not eating carbs, so it’s not likely you’ll catch her there now. Yes, I watch Oprah. It’s very manly.

Sardine may be the best bistro in Chicago. I’ll give nods to Chez Joel on Taylor street, Café le Coq in Oak Park, and Sardine’s sister bistro Le Bouchon in Bucktown, but each time I return, the food at Sardine is precise and comforting. Their Lyonnaise salad with garlicky croutons, thick cut salty lardons, and warm poached egg is a definitive example They execute classics like steak frites, bouillabaisse, cassoulet, and duck confit that honor the spirits of Escoffier, the brothers TroisGrois, and Careme.

It’s the organ meat preparation that provides the edge. The perfect offal is seared on the outside, firm on the immediate inside with a pink warm molten center. This holds for liver, kidney, or thymus. It’s easy to bypass this state, and go straight for steamed, gluey, dense, and gelatinous. All it takes is an extra minute in the braising liquid or the sauté pan. This never happens at La Sardine.

Last week, I satisified my organ cravings with their sweetbreads and some Boudin Noir (blood sausage) with carmelized apples and onions, a sharp creamy dijon mustard, and a lightly dressed Frisee salad.

The crispy sweetbreads hit the tri-state of perfection. The boudin noir was one of the best I have ever had. It was sweet and spicy with hints of pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Many bistros warm boudin noir to the point where the minimal fat burns off and you’re left with a casing of bland Sahara dry meat. La Sardine’s version was moist and balanced, offset with the sweetness of the carmelized apple and the vinegar zip of the frisee dressing.

You know the trite saying, life’s not a destination? Well sometimes you want it to be. Sometimes the ultimate satisfaction is knowing you have found the perfect example of something. La Sardine’s Grand Marnier souffle is that destination. Puffed up high like a French politician, it’s redolent with eggy goodness and complimented by a warm fresh fruit coulis-blueberry this week.

The best part about La Sardine is that on Tuesday nights, you can order three courses, any appetizer, entrée, and dessert for twenty-five bucks. Even if you think you might hate organ meats, at this price you can find out for sure without mourning an empty wallet.

La Sardine is located at 111 N. Carpenter St. Phone is 312-421-2800.

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