Like its previous downtown location, Sandbar was much like a pilot fish in its symbiotic relationship to a shark — in this case, the larger and more laureled Le Rêve. Though it may have been a destination for many, it was equally likely to have been a fallback for those not able to get a last-minute reservation next door.
Sandbar’s second-tier status was reinforced by the fact that, though soups could be kept warm in a Crock-Pot, the impossibility of adequate ventilation precluded any actual cooking; any hot entrées had to come from the mother ship via an underground umbilical. No longer. In its new location at the Pearl, Andrew Weissman may still call many of the shots, but chef Chris Carlson seems to be enjoying his semi-autonomy to the fullest. The display kitchen is ready, willing and able to turn out an array of hot plates. The wine list has improved to the point that it is now one of the best in the city. And if the atmosphere isn’t one that encourages the whispering of sweet nothings or the confession of indiscretions, the compact space, augmented by outdoor seating at picnic tables, does breathe an air of efficiency that is generally reinforced by competent, friendly service. Put yourself in the hands of sommelier Adam Spencer the moment you’re seated and get ready for a ride on a clipper ship.
Those still nostalgic for Le Rêve may choose to start with the legendary caramelized onion tart; on a recent visit, the taste was as remembered, the crust a touch too complacent. In any case, we prefer to start with something bracing and raw. The sashimis and seviches (an alternative spelling) rival those at any Asian restaurant in town and are potentially elevated by being untethered from total tradition. The sublimely simple, sliced tuna with soy and wasabi is the best from a purist standpoint; more effusive presentations such as raw flounder with pickled local peaches and Fresno peppers are less focused on the fish itself and more intent upon creating an overall sensation. Cured salmon, for its part, may come with accompanying caviar(s), the shrimp seviche with a jumble of ancillary ingredients such as corn, pineapple and feisty microgreens. Just go with it. Now that the trade winds are beginning to pick up, it’s time to focus on a (bounding) main. At lunch this might well be an oyster po’ boy or crab cake sandwich; both are recommended. In soft-shell crab season, a particularly challenging ’boy may also be had. Some deconstruction may be required — who knew these critters came so large? — but the effort will be worth it. Asian coleslaw may come with any or all of these, but if it doesn’t, be sure to order it as a side; it’s the best slaw you’ll ever put fork to. Push away the house chips, however — not that they aren’t great. It’s just that, well, you may actually want dessert.
The main course list is not large at Sandbar, though there will always be specials worth considering. Do not eat too many of the house’s addictive pepper-studded rolls while making up your mind. Skate wing in any form (though that form will most often not be the classic beurre noir) is to be seriously contemplated; citrus and couscous accompaniments were a recent variation on the theme. Fluke may give the kitchen occasion to play with truffle foam. But the arrival of wild-caught salmon season surely signals the selection of same served over a lush potato cake (worthy of its own plate) and accompanied by an arugula salad moistened with preserved lemon vinaigrette. Exquisitely crusty yet still robustly rosy, this salmon is a reminder, if such is needed, that the farmed version is truly to be avoided. Here we have taste, here we have texture … and here we are especially happy with a voluptuous Meursault as an accompaniment. (This beautiful chardonnay-based wine from Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune is as instructive as the salmon in its way: Just as you should avoid the Atlantic’s farm-raised product, you should seek out the real thing from France or from New World producers not so intent on cloaking the grape in excessive oak.)
More breads may be presented, this time scented with potato, dates … be respectful and try them; be discreet and try not to finish them.
Assuming you have followed all the annoying instructions above, you may now have dessert. The key lime pie that made the move from St. Mary’s Street is still on the menu, and it is still one of the city’s best finales. But other offerings besides the chocolate and condensed milk cake have been making cameo appearances of late. We were recently served a lofty blueberry soufflé, and it was at once outrageously cartoony in color and captivating in flavor. On another occasion, a cube of cheesecake coated in candied hazelnut sat alongside a quenelle of quivering chocolate mousse. The combination was killer. We’d walk the plank for it.