I was a little kid when I first tasted lightly roasted veal marrow, that wobbly, glistening mass in the hollow of a bone.
It arrived at the table as a 1-inch-thick crosscut of the lower leg bone, sitting on a saucer with a tiny porcelain cup of gray sea salt, a hunk of toasted country bread, and a little silver spoon for digging out the marrow.
I spooned the warm, near-runny marrow from the center of a hot bone onto a corner of crusty bread, spread it around a little, added a pinch of sea salt, as I had been told to do, and nirvana struck my taste buds. To me, it was divinely delicious.
Although I just loved it, I know that to most people back then bone marrow was probably quite disgusting, as were sweetbreads, snails, tongue, headcheese, eel, and any number of other foods outside the parameters of American dining.
I have no doubt that I was greatly helped in learning to taste these things by being in France, where they were part of a much wider canvas of dining. (Thank you, Dad, for taking a job that gave us many years in Europe.) Today, these exotics and others have worked their way into American restaurant dining, which is great.
The best bone marrow I’ve had in a Detroit-area restaurant recently was a daily special offered at The Sardine Room, a recent addition to the town square in Plymouth, and an absolute little gem.
Discovering places like The Sardine Room is what makes this job worthwhile. It’s a seafood restaurant and raw bar in name, but with a lot more. But it’s the distinction in the flavors and taste of the food it offers that sets it apart.
The design of The Sardine Room is fresh, fun, and energetic, with a clean-lined décor and a menu full of nice little surprises, as well as a brief but smart wine list.
In summer and into the fall, the sidewalk terrace dining area, featuring separate umbrella tables, is jammed with people enjoying a casual meal, as pedestrians pass to and from several other restaurants and shops around the square.
The interior of The Sardine Room, which opened in May, has the feel of an updated East Coast fish house, with brick walls painted a shiny white, and a glass-and-stainless steel display case with a bed of crushed ice on which rest fish, oysters, clams, lobsters, and lemons — all greeting you as you arrive.
Behind that display is a bar, at which you can either wait for your table or eat dinner, which many patrons choose to do. The bar’s back wall is cleverly lighted in a white fluorescent wash that shines through the bottles on glass shelves, making each pop brightly, and giving it a fun and pleasingly ethereal visual effect.
The dining room sports a blue-green banquette that travels the length of a wall, with seating on the other side provided by modern-looking brushed aluminum chairs.
On one visit, the two of us asked to be seated side by side, which we prefer to sitting face-to-face, although it means asking for the use of a second table. The staff was happy to accommodate us.
The menu, as with many restaurants these days, is a mix of full plates and small plates, salads and large side dishes, which get the emphasis here.
There are the assorted raw-bar items, which also include Alaskan King crab legs, oysters, sashimi tuna, shrimp cocktail, or a combo platter of each.
A selection of small-plate items includes a plate of top-grade specialty country hams from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia; a highly gourmet porchetta “slider” of slow-cooked pork served on a brioche bun with arugula, picked onions, and a salsa verde. Just delicious.
The fish tacos are made with grilled snapper, thyme-scented cabbage, corn salsa, jalapeño slaw, and tequila-lime cream. A crab croquette comes with corn salsa and lemon aioli.
While marrow seems a bit of an oddity at a place that promotes itself with a fish-centric name and menu, it somehow works just fine.
The marrow bone we were served was thankfully from a longer, thin bone, split down the middle. The marrow is more delicate tasting when in a lesser mass than from the shank of a full-sized animal. Marrow is a dish that needs to be light and delicate.
Not to be missed is a delicious signature dish of fresh sardines grilled in butter and served with capers and goat-cheese crostini.
One other item on the menu that’s a little out of place and boggles my mind is the Canadian dish called poutine: French fries topped with brown gravy and cheese curd. This is purely a matter of personal taste, but I’ve never understood poutine.
By the quality of everything else on the menu, I’m sure the poutine is well-made, but I passed. Why this dish has been popping up on American restaurant menus, I do not understand. Unfortunately, this Quebecois fast-food “delicacy” only reinforces a French snobbery about French-Canadian food and culture.
One of the more unusual and intriguing combinations on the menu is a very intense but flavorful linguine of Maryland crab, lemon, mint, olive oil, and chilies. The full-plate choices include a Waygu beef flat-iron steak with lobster mashed potatoes and a béarnaise sauce; a fresh Scottish salmon with dilled spaetzle and smoked-cheddar beets; a Waygu burger with Velveeta block cheese and a hot-pepper confit, and a delicious lobster roll on a bun with a fresh lemony mayonnaise and French fries.
On the brief wine list, one of the least expensive wines is by far the best quality and value: a Château de L’Hyvernière Muscadet — dry, snappy, and a perfect balance for the kind of food the restaurant serves. At $34 a bottle, it’s a good buy. In reds, try the Grochau Cellars Willamette Valley pinot noir for $49.
The owners of The Sardine Room, the Yaquinto family, also own the adjoining restaurants: Compari’s, a pizza and basic Italian food place; and the fine-dining Fiamma Grille, which we also tried. It, too, is very good but sedate and somewhat to-be-expected.
The Sardine Room, by contrast is delightful, fresh, unpretentious, and friendly, with extremely good food, and courteous, attentive service. For what it’s attempting to be — an easy-going, hip-dining restaurant offering something different — it succeeds well.