November 29, 2012
Can a restaurant be a hidden gem if everybody knows about it?
A road-less-traveled location and understated-to-a-fault exterior haven't prevented 6-week-old La Sirena Clandestina (which means "the hidden mermaid") from pulling in crowds to its Market District location. True, it doesn't take much to fill this 40-seat spot, but when the bar is four-deep with people, nursing craft cocktails while waiting to chow down on chef/owner John Manion's lively (and gratifyingly affordable) Brazilian-inflected food, you know something special is going on.
Funny thing: This hot and happening restaurant wasn't Manion's plan. At all.
The serendipitous convergence began with the collapse of Manion's original deal, which wouldn't have been in the Market District and wouldn't have been Brazilian. "I had all my eggs in one basket," says Manion, who can smile about it now, "and I had a team in place. And it fell through at the signing."
Lacking a backup plan, but needing "for my own well-being" to do something, anything, Manion devised a one-shot pop-up dinner at Dodo, Kim Dalton's breakfast-lunch spot at the corner of Morgan Street and Fulton Market. The underground nature of the dinner inspired the "clandestina" term, and as for mermaid, the pop-up menu was predominantly seafood. And not coincidentally, Manion sports a mermaid tattoo on his left arm.
"It's been there for well over a decade," the chef says. "Let's just say it had to do with a girl."
The event was such a hit, in short order Manion struck a deal to convert Dodo (Dalton remains a partner) into a full-time version of a one-time meal. "That pop-up influenced everything (La Sirena) has become," Manion says. "Everything developed very organically. It feels very right."
Tastes pretty good too. Start with something off the "de la calle" (street food) list; Manion makes a mean baked empanada — spicy ground pork, venison ragu and ricotta-hazelnut-butternut-squash are among the versions I've enjoyed — and a first-rate, mezcal-splashed swordfish ceviche, served with house-made saltines. Acarajes, quenelle-shaped bean fritters topped with ground poached shrimp, are more of a textural experience than a flavor trip, but they're fun. Skip the skewered chicken hearts, a too-tough novelty at best, but don't overlook the skewered rabbit meat, served with carrots and kale and a lovely sauce of rabbit stock, pickled mustard seed and butter.
Larger plates are hard to fault. The beef dishes are good enough, but it's tough to pass up the seafood; I love the soulful moqueca (a deeply rich stew of fish, mussels and shrimp over cilantro risotto), the delicate sea bass casserole with coconut and curry notes and, my favorite, the whole-fried snapper, which combines satisfying crunch with beautiful, slightly sweet flesh. I haven't had a snapper this good in some time.
And though it's a simple enough dish — lobster tail drizzled with miso-malagueta butter (malagueta is a Brazilian chili) — how many restaurants in town offer a $20 lobster-tail option? Not enough, that's how many.
Side dishes not to miss include the pao de queijo (tiny cheese rolls that are absolutely addictive) and a terrific salad of shaved Brussels sprouts, charred radicchio, manchego cheese and lemon-olive dressing; it's like a leafy palate-cleanser.
Dessert isn't a kitchen priority at the moment, but you'll still enjoy the alfajores (shortbread cookies with dulce de leche and sea salt) and the very pretty coconut cheesecake, layered with chocolate-graham-cracker crust and dotted with guava sauce. Still, I'd be tempted to invest those calories instead in one of the cocktails by Justin Anderson (beverage director and de facto general manager), who makes one hell of a pisco sour, among many others.
La Sirena isn't a complete package, but it's only going to get better. Manion has just redone the menu graphics, adding more dishes and eliminating the need for those borderline-illegible specials cards he was sending out each night. Service and the kitchen, as they catch their respective breaths, will find their rhythm, allowing for a more dynamic menu and even lunch service, which Manion intends to add.
Given the other eating options along Fulton Market (Next, The Aviary, Moto, ing, The Publican, Publican Quality Meats, Glazed & Infused), it seems the stretch is literally and figuratively paralleling the Randolph Street dining scene. On behalf of the street's valets, seen glumly waving flashlights in hopes of attracting a cab, I hope the trend continues.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
La Sirena Clandestina
954 W. Fulton Market; 312-226-5300; lasirenachicago.com
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday
Prices: Entrees $16-$35
Credit cards: A, DC, M, V
Reservations: Not accepted
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
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