Posted: Mar 20, 2019
Bar Sardine, a Berkeley pop-up inside Bartavelle Coffee, exemplifies this growing trend
At Bar Sardine, a pop-up wine bar inside Berkeley’s Bartavelle cafe, good things come in small aluminum packages. A tin of squid in its gooey, turbid ink ($12) gets along swimmingly with La Stoppa’s opaque 2016 Trebbiolo, a rustic Barbera blend ($14/glass).
Fatty, flaky mackerel bathing in oil ($12) arrives in a tin with its lid peeled back, surrounded by a pat of butter and Calabrian chiles. The mackerel responds positively to a glass of 2017 Catherine & Pierre Breton Aussi Sec ($14/glass), a murky Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc that tastes sour and salty.
“I guess people have been doing this forever in Portugal and Spain,” says Sam Sobolewski, who owns and operates Bartavelle and Bar Sardine with his mother, Suzanne Drexhage, of the synergy between these wines and tinned fish.
“I happen to like a lot of salty, mineral wines from islands, from coasts, from high elevations,” he says, “and those kinds of wild, edgy wines are really good with fishy things.”
Did Mandy Heldt Donovan just ruin her wine?
Sobolewski’s hardly alone. We appear to be in the midst of a full-fledged wine-and-tinned-fish bar boom in the Bay Area and beyond. Not just that: natural wine and tinned fish. Oakland’s Ordinaire has long served imported sardines and mackerel. The new Verjus in San Francisco has an entire “conserva bar,” featuring the colorfully packaged tinned fish from Portuguese importer Tricana. You can now find tins of Don Bocarte anchovies — for $25(!) — at the natural-wine-fluent Tartine Manufactory. In Boston, Haley Fortier pours natural wines alongside Da Morgada tinned fish at her Haley Henry wine bar. Seattle’s Bar de Soif and Sardine Head in Portland, Ore. — both, like Bar Sardine, pop-ups — are on the tinned fish bandwagon, too.
This is a thing. A strangely specific thing.
Certainly, there are practical explanations for the rising popularity of tinned fish in these sorts of establishments. There’s the obvious consideration: Opening a can of fish doesn’t require intensive labor, and these high-end imports can be a fancy menu item in bars that don’t have full kitchens. They’re an adventurous alternative to the cheese and charcuterie plate.
And there’s more, and better, tinned fish available now than there used to be. “For a long time these really high-quality tinned fish weren’t being distributed everywhere,” Sobolewski says. According to Supermarket News, the global market for canned fish is expected to grow by $7 billion over the next five years.
The pairing also just happens to make perfect sense. “Fish like sardines, mackerel and anchovies naturally have a high oil content,” says Verjus beverage director Matt Cirne. “Acidity in the wine often serves well to cut through the oiliness of the fish.” At Verjus, Cirne serves these tins with high-acid sparkling wines, and also plays around with aromatic whites with some of the more assertively flavored tins: a curried mackerel, for example, with a dry Muscat from Le Petit Domaine Gimios.
At Bar Sardine, though, Sobolewski is tapping into an additional aspect of the wine-and-tinned-fish pairing logic. Whether “natural wine” is the best term for it or not, the sort of wines that many of us are finding at forward-thinking bars these days are savory, funky, even briny. More and more, when I’m out drinking, I’m tasting wines that recall for me other preserved comestibles — Chardonnays with notes of sourdough, Syrahs with hints of cornichons, pet-nats that smell like kombucha.
You might say that wines like that are the vinous equivalent of a tin of sardines.
The concept for Bar Sardine was in Sobolewski’s head long before this trend took hold. “This was what we always wanted to do,” he says. When he and his mother opened Bartavelle in 2012, the intention was a coffee bar by day and a wine bar by night. In fact, on paper, the cafe’s business name has always been Bar Sardine LLC.
The coffee bar part of the business kept him and Drexhage, who is the cafe’s chef, plenty busy. They’ve always served wines at Bartavelle, but when they experimented with staying open through the evening, business was slow. “The vibe just isn’t an evening vibe,” Sobolewski says. “I don’t think people think about going to get toast at 6 p.m.”
Sobolewski did his homework. He worked one day a week at Ordinaire, learning about natural wine (and eating a few sardines). He took a sabbatical to New Orleans, where he worked at the wine bar Bacchanal — a sprawling garden that’s several times the size of Bartavelle’s snug enclosure but nevertheless inspired Sobolewski’s approach. “I liked the idea at Bacchanal of drinking really great wine but in a totally non-pretentious backyard-party environment,” he says.
And so Bar Sardine was born in December, open only on Friday evenings. To eliminate any of that toast-related confusion, Sobolewski and Drexhage make a point of transforming the space from day to night. After closing Bartavelle at 4 p.m., they take everything off the counter, remove the pastry case, light some candles, dim the lights, put out paper menus and — voila! — a wine bar is born.
Although Sobolewski wears the natural wine badge somewhat reluctantly — “I’m not super dogmatic about it,” he says, which is what almost every sommelier has been telling me lately — it’s useful to think of Bar Sardine as a natural wine bar. Upward of half of the wine selections change from week to week; recently, for International Women’s Day, Sobolewski poured only wines made by women. Natural (or at least -ish) wineries Broc Cellars, Inconnu, Martha Stoumen and Elisabetta Foradori have all made multiple appearances. Most choices are available by the glass, half bottle and bottle.
There’s more to Bar Sardine than sardines, of course. Drexhage makes a dreamy salt cod brandade ($11). Cured anchovy appears on crostini ($7; so maybe people do want toast after 6 p.m.!) and with an “almost hard boiled egg” ($4). If you’re a fan of the Persian breakfasts Drexhage makes at Bartavelle, you’ll recognize her sensibilities in Bar Sardine’s winter veg plate ($11), a platter with carrot hummus, house-made pickles and za’atar.
To order: Wines by the glass including Breton Dilettante sparkling ($13), Foradori Fontanasanta ($16), Inconnu Lalalu rosé ($11); tinned fish ($12), salt cod brandade ($11)
Where: Bar Sardine, inside Bartavelle Coffee & Wine Bar, 1603 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. 510-524-2473 or www.bartavellecoffee.com
When: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Friday.
He’s not pouring it anymore, but a few weeks ago I enjoyed a delicious Catarratto, a Sicilian white grape long used to bulk up bland blends, from Marco de Bartoli ($16/glass). It was viscous, lushly fruity and reminded me, on the nose, of Pez candy.
That might not sound like an ideal tinned fish pairing, but trust me, it was.
By Esther Mobley
March 19, 2019
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