City Paper is not for tourists
Technically, I guess this is more like Appetizer of the Week, but the sardine antipasto ($12) at Bibiana packs so many humble pleasures on one plate that I couldn’t resist plugging a starter instead of an entree.
Chef Nicholas Stefanelli buys his fresh whole sardines twice a week from Portugal, debones them in house, and cures them with salt for about 30 minutes. The kitchen then “rinses” the sardines with a white-wine mixture of saffron, dill, and garlic before finally marinating the fillets in extra virgin olive oil mixed with dill, bay leaf, and garlic.
The marinated fillets are quickly grilled and served on a small nest of “Venetian onions.” Or, to be more precise, served on Stefanelli’s version of the slightly undercooked onions that Venetians pair with liver. The chef melts down garlic and anchovies in olive oil before adding the sliced onions and more seasonings, covering the pan, and cooking those rings until they’re drowning in flavor. The final touch are the bread crumbs, made in-house and applied liberally to add both texture and spice to the dish.
Given the sardines, anchovies, and all the garlic, you might think this antipasto pungent enough to raise the dead. Or at least pungent enough to keep vampires and potential suitors away. It’s not. The dish is astonishingly subdued.
The sardines smack of the sea, fresh and firm and full of flavor. The onions add more complexity to the bite than I can break down in a sentence or two; the mere act of explanation, in fact, would dare to suggest that the harmony of flavors could be deciphered and cataloged, as if someone could begin to explain why Mozart’s Jupiter symphony were an act of genius.
Yes, these simple sardines are that good.