Review: La Sirena Clandestina
954 W. Fulton Market 312-226-5300
Rating: !!! ½ (Heating up)
Don't recognize the name John Manion? It's not your fault—the chef's largely been out of the limelight since his former home, Mas, closed in 2008. He helped rehab the menus at Goose Island's Clybourn brewpub and at West Town's Branch 27, and briefly oversaw the kitchen at The Southern. Mostly though, he was quietly plugging away at a restaurant of his own, which grew out of a South American pop-up dinner that Manion and friends created during the summer of 2011.
To Manion, that restaurant, La Sirena Clandestina—"the hidden mermaid"—has been a long time coming. "It's been a really long journey," he said. "But on the second night of that pop-up, the room just became a party. I said, 'Man, this is something else.' That's where it all started."
While the menu at no-reservations Sirena leans South American, drawing from Manion's childhood in Brazil, he's the first to tell you it's not the purest version of that cuisine.
"I've been cooking for 18 years in Chicago," he said. "So the biggest influence in my life is the Midwest."
South American flavor and Midwest ingredients might sound like strange bedfellows, and given the popularity of Sirena's neighbors—The Publican, Ing and Vera—Manion will have to really impress Chicago's tastebuds to put his name back on the packed dining radar. Would these ceviches and caipirinhas be enough to jog my memory?
Yes, you'll want a drink.
Once you've settled into your table, of which there are only 40 in the West Loop space that formerly housed breakfast-and-lunch spot Dodo, you'll want to order a drink. That's not only because the well-dressed, gregarious types at the bar genuinely look like they're having a great time, but because the cocktails are unlike anything else you can sip in the West Loop. Beverage director Justin Anderson, formerly of Branch 27 and The Bedford, proves he can stir up both classic and creative drinks that riff on the South American inspiration. I could almost smell The Cusco Cup ($10) before I tasted it, with big, fresh cucumber, lemon and ginger scents that are bolstered by a distinctive, bitter bump of Fernet Branca. Even familiar faces like a pisco sour ($10) taste new here, as the balance of all the components—pisco, perfectly frothed egg whites, citrus juice and bitters—made me regret most of the pisco sours I'd had before this one. A tight and affordable wine list is more global than I expected, with a number of bottles from Italy and Germany, but with a dozen-plus cocktails on the menu, I couldn't resist sticking to all things shaken and stirred.
Carnivale this is not.
Diners familiar with the expansive, bright dining room of Chicago's other Nuevo Latino West Loop restaurant, Carnivale, will find its opposite in La Sirena Clandestina. Dark and rustic, mysterious and sexy, Sirena still feels energetic, especially once the dining room fills and it's two bodies deep at the bar after 7 p.m. It's a simmering energy, though, like a sky crackling with electricity before the lightning strikes. Plenty of daters are making the most of the moody ambience.
Hey, this menu's tiny!
There are only a handful or so street food-inspired starters (de la calle) and a half-dozen home-style main courses (de la casa) on the menu, but Manion said he plans to add more dishes this week, always keeping his eye on which ingredients are fresh and available. "Fresh" was the first word on my lips once I finally stopped scooping up mounds of swordfish ceviche ($10), whose large, rustic chunks of mild fish soak up tangy citrus and reached my mouth via an addictive house-made saltine cracker. The night of my visit, a whole branzino ($30) was on special, and my date had to watch me grapple with a few bones as I savored the flakes of moist, simply seasoned bass. I was glad for the generous size of the fish, since I wasn't as thrilled by the tough, slightly dry rabbit skewer ($18). Luckily, Manion plans to add a whole grilled fish to the permanent menu because it's a dish that's so evocative of South America. "When I think about food in Brazil, it's really simply prepared seafood. It's a guy on a beach with charcoal grilling fish or shrimp with just a sauce," he said.
Have I tasted this before?
While Manion's South American flavors are undeniable, the dishes aren't so foreign as to seem inaccessible. Of the daily flavors of empanadas ($3 each), the tender chicken pocket with its baked, not fried, shell sent my memories of chicken pot pie on a vacation to the Southern Hemisphere. Likewise, a side of the sweet-and-starchy coconut risotto ($5) perks up the Mediterranean arborio rice with a tropical taste that beautifully toes the line between summer and fall. Though there's no official dessert menu, my easygoing and helpful server recommended I finish the meal with two alfajores ($2 each), a Latin American sandwich cookie with dulce de leche filling. Though not the softest version of the decadent dessert, Manion's cookies have a shortbread quality that, again, hits my stomach in a nostalgic place.
Bottom line: Those who missed Manion—or didn't know him to begin with—have an excellent reason to get (re)acquainted with his straight-forward, honest flavors. I wasn't sure why he'd kept his head down for so long, but I'm relieved to see he's emerged from the waters in the company of this intriguing mermaid.
Reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @kbernot
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