For no good reason at all, sardines have always gotten a bad rap in the fish world. Well, there is a reason—it's just not a good one. It's likely because the small, oily fish has been a staple of the canned food scene in America since the 1950s, giving an otherwise fine fish the reputation of stinky lowlife of the sea.
Truth is, fresh sardines are flavorful, healthful and sustainably fished. And more and more chefs are putting these seasonal treats on their menus—chefs like Matthew Anderson of Umami in Chagrin Falls, who has great memories of enjoying fresh sardines on the coast of Maine.
"I fondly remember eating them as a kid growing up," says the chef. "They were literally fresh off the boat. It is one of the earliest food memories I have with my father."
Anderson has since made sourcing fresh, seasonal ingredients the mainstay of his culinary career.
Originally from New Hampshire, Anderson joined the Coast Guard out of high school. He later graduated from the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. After an eight-year stint as chef in Washington, D.C., he landed in Cleveland to work as instructor at the Loretta Paganini School of Cooking. For the past four years, Anderson has steered the ship at Umami.
The charming 38-seat restaurant has blossomed into the best of the Falls. "I tell everyone that the menu at Umami is my interpretation of traditional Asian ingredients, and then I spin them my way," he explains. Take his version of hanger steak, which is paired with a delectable kim chi potato pancake. Or consider the seductive goat cheese dumplings with miso mushroom vinaigrette. And it doesn't get any better than Umami's uber-fresh sushi and sashimi.
But the true success of Umami comes from Anderson's single-minded devotion to fresh, seasonal selections. "Without fresh ingredients I would be out of business, and it doesn't get any fresher than sardines right now," he explains.
The season is short lived for fresh sardines – just three weeks – so the window for Anderson to work his magic is brief. "They literally landed on my back dock a couple of days ago," says Anderson. The good news is that the chef already knows how he'll be showcasing the fish. "With sardines you have a lot of big flavors to work with. So, I'll be roasting them with fresh ginger, sesame, tomato and a little chili flake, then serving them over black rice."
We're already drooling over the crispy fried sardine appetizer, which is served with soy dipping sauce that mirrors the fish's natural salinity.
Anderson estimates that his sardine shipments will continue only through mid July. That has to do with preserving the fish for future menus.
"They catch the sardines by the tonnage, so when they reach their quota they are done and they don't ship anymore," Anderson explains.