Why a small, oily, strong-tasting fish is showing up on restaurant menus

You probably didn't expect to see sardines on the list of 2017 food trends. The small, oily fish have an assertive flavor that can be a turnoff for some. Most people associate them with cans, which runs contrary to our notion that the best food is fresh. They feel like a throwback to an era when people didn't understand exactly how good food could be. 

Americans "weren't going to embrace grandpa's can of sardines on the supermarket shelf," says Elizabeth Moskow, culinary director for the Sterling-Rice Group, a branding agency that put sardines on its trend forecast for the year. But high-quality canned sardines, as well as fresh ones, are making more appearances on restaurant menus. "I think the American palate may be ready for something as strong as sardines," Moskow says.

Sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which may reduce the risk of heart disease. They're also environmentally friendly, because they're lower on the food chain. 

"They were considered kind of a trash fish, and not something as prized as they currently are or could be in the future," says Jon Sybert, chef and co-owner of Washington's Tail Up Goat restaurant, which has rotated through several sardine dishes throughout the year. He particularly likes preparing them in a salt crust, which keeps them super moist, and serving them with a chocolate rye bread.

The sardine's popularity is benefiting from a recent wave of travel to Portugal, one of this year's "it" destinations. There, tourists encounter tinned sardines with beautiful packaging, canned in high-quality oils, often with spices, pickles or peppers. 

"The reality is you can't get fresher," says Kathy Sidell, owner of the Saltie Girl restaurant in Boston, pointing out that the fish are often canned directly off the docks. Saltie Girl has sold sardines fried, grilled, marinated and canned, served with bread and a house-made butter, similar to how the fish are presented in Portugal. "We often say it's like a charcuterie board, but with seafood," she notes. 

At Mola, a Spanish restaurant in Washington, you'll find a house-cured sardine plate with an aioli and piquillo pepper, a riff on a dish co-owner Erin Lingle had in Madrid, or pan-roasted sardines with paprika vinaigrette and a side of Swiss chard. 

The dishes have proved popular, thanks in part to the enthusiasm of her staff.

"People are learning to embrace those aspects of sardines rather then find them off-putting," Lingle says. "I love sardines because they are an oily, strong-flavored fish that stand up well to bold flavors."

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