At Sardella In St. Louis, Gerard Craft Entices Diners Into A Leap Of Faith
Most St. Louisans never ate at Niche, the highly respected restaurant from award-winning chef Gerard Craft. And most won’t eat at his new Clayton restaurant, Sardella. In fact, I know plenty of people who maybe shouldn’t eat there because they don’t enjoy exploring exotic flavors or unconventional dishes at upper-end price points.
But I’m still super excited about the place. And you should be too—no matter where you eat out.
Craft approaches food—and the whole dining experience, really—with the attitude that everything counts. The fresh-cut flowers on the highest shelves, even in the dead of winter. The tiles on the floor, which pay homage to Niche, even though he closed that groundbreaking restaurant to make way for Sardella. The spices and seasonings, the ingredients, the technique, the creativity that goes into the menu months before it’s plated and served.
The kitchen staff absorbs this and internalizes it. And then they go on to other restaurants, specializing in everything from drinks to desserts and breads to beers. More St. Louisans are exposed to Craft’s approach through this behind-the-scenes infusion than will ever eat at Sardella. And that’s exciting.
Visions and vistas
The vision behind this new Italian-ish restaurant, as Craft as has explained in countless media interviews, is that it be a place he’d like to eat at. Unpretentious, fun, lively and—of course—full of delicious food. He’s been thinking about Italy for years, ever since traveling there in preparation to open Pastaria, the pasta-and-pizza eatery that connects to Sardella. He took it down a fast-casual road at Porano, which opened last year Downtown. But both of those menus are downright traditional compared to the newcomer of the Niche family of restaurants.
The vistas inside the restaurant are exceptionally bright and clean, even when the space is packed with diners. The visual centerpiece is a display case lined with colorful sardine tins (because “sardella” is an ancient Italian sauce made from sardines, salt and peppers). Thanks to wonderful work by Atomic Dust, its simplicity is recaptured everywhere, from the navy-and-white tiles to the blue-striped napkins. Old World touches like newspaper sticks in a rack by the pastry display case are conversation starters as well an invitation to linger over coffee and a muffin in the morning.
Ingredients and ingenuity
Executive Chef Nick Blue grew up professionally at three Craft restaurants: Taste, Niche and Brasserie. So it’s no surprise that he’s been tasked with rolling out the Sardella menu. Some is trendy (like the grain bowl with farro and quinoa) while some starts out classically (like the roast beef sandwich) before diverging (with tarragon mayo and charred onion). Some is through-and-through Italian (like the prosciutto plate), but most is a fusion of Italian and something else. It could be Midwestern, as with the lamb neck braised in locally craft-brewed Abraxas beer, served with very traditional Italian flatbread called piadina. Or it could be Asian, as in the miso-ricotta ravioli.
It’s also no surprise that the flavor combinations harmonize beautifully. Each dish we tasted was better than the last—save the blueberry muffin, which curiously lacked salt for balance. I’d have been better off (even for breakfast!) with the pie, which Pastry Chef Sarah Osborn has no doubt perfected.
Also on my list of things to try next time is the agnolotti, little pasta pockets filled with a combination of ‘nduja (spicy pork spread) and taleggio (tangy, semisoft cheese). And the simplest of pleasures, dinner rolls with black garlic butter.
On a quiet morning when we had the luxury of watching the chefs in the open kitchen, we marveled at the way the cured salmon was carved to order and carefully laid across the best housemade English muffin you’ll ever eat, spread with rich crème fraiche and sprinkled with chopped fennel fronds. The elevation of that simple dish into an experience is typical of Craft’s approach. Here’s hoping that Sardella is just as successful at spreading “the Craft approach” as Niche has been.
Tips for a top-notch experience at Sardella
Top dish: The surprisingly versatile faro-quinoa “grain bowl”—with kale, kimchi and a fried egg—offers a spicy wake-up call for breakfast and the warmth of global comfort food for lunch.
Popular pour: The Sump Coffee espresso is a tiny shot of Italy, just as perfect after dinner as at breakfast with a pastry.
Best place to perch: The tables are tight, so for a bit of extra elbow room, ask for one of the two curved banquettes.
Insider tip: For dibs on special dishes, check out @GerardFCraft on Twitter, where he posts news of palate-teasers like pork belly-prosciutto panini and lets you know how many servings are available.
Where to go
7734 Forsyth Blvd.
Mon.-Thurs. 7am-2pm and 5-10pm, Fri. 7am-2pm and 5-11pm, Sat. 5-11pm, Sun. 5-9pm