Sunday, May 18, 2014

La Sirena Clandestina

I first encountered the cooking of John Manion at the Goose Island Brew Pub in Goose Island.  The former chef of the popular (and now shuttered) Humboldt Park restaurant Mas was going through a stint as a Ronin and was brought in to spice up the menu.  He didn't stay long, but he did elevate the food from standard bar and grill food.  He then was the starting chef at the now closed Branch 27.  It was a pretty good restaurant when he was there and he was able to incorporate more of his ideas, but it seemed that he wanted a restaurant of his own where he would be able to explore more of his ideas on modern Latin cuisine.  He has achieved this with La Sirena Clandestina his restaurant in the River West neighborhood.  Located across the street from a few of the hottest places in town (Moto, Ing, Next, and The Aviary) it's pretty low key.  The building is pretty non-descript.  There is a large tinted window for the front wall and part of one side with a large glass door at the front.  There isn't much art hanging on the wall. but the walls are a bright turquoise so that helps somewhat.  The ceiling is unfinished and the kitchen is large and open.  Despite being fairly non-descript, it is very popular.  When I came there, all of the tables were booked until 10 pm, and the only seats were at the bar.  I don't mind sitting at the bar because it gives me more to look at.  The bar has a pretty extensive liquor collection and the bartenders looked pretty skilled at their jobs.  The cocktails leaned on the Brazilian/Caribbean side and the cocktail that I ordered fell into that category.  I ordered a drink called the Brazilianaire and while I don't remember all that it contained, it did have Cachaça, Rum, and Angostura Bitters, and was garnished with mint leaves.  It was sweet, bitter, and had a lot of botanical flavors and I really enjoyed it.
When looking over the food menu, I saw that they had Empanadas and I knew that that was going to have to be part of my meal.  Empanadas are savory hand pies and remind me of the Hispanic version of pasties.  I had had this restaurant's version of empanadas previously at a benefit that I had attended and I really liked them, so I knew actually getting one at the restaurant was a no lose situation.  The restaurant always offers a meat and a vegetable empanada with various fillings based on the season.  I ordered the Meat Empanada which contained Chicken, Pork, Black Beans, Peppers, and a Meat Gravy.  It was spicy, meaty, savory, and very hot.  I did enjoy it, but I did burn my fingers several times when I was trying to eat it. 
 For my other appetizer, I ordered something that I had never seen at another restaurant.  I knew that it was something that people ate, but it was also going to be a little bit of a challenge.  I ordered Skewered Chicken Hearts with Ramps and Limes which was served with a dipping sauce on the side.  As hearts are an organ meat that can be expected to have a lot of blood, I expected a bit of an irony flavor.  It did have that but it wasn't overwhelming.  They actually didn't taste too bad, the ramps (wild onions) and limes helped, but they were kind of tough.  The side sauce was a Scotch, citrus, habanero sauce.  It was flavorful, spicy, a little boozy, and went well together with the hearts.  I liked the flavor of everything, but given the toughness of the hearts, I'm not sure I would order it again.

The entree, like the empanada, was a repeat for me.  I ordered the Moqueca, the Brazilian Seafood Stew containing Fish, Shrimp, Mussels, Cashews, and Coconut Broth and Cilantro Risotto.  I had previously had it on the menu at Branch 27 and I really liked it there.  I figured since it was the same chef , that it would be similar.  This is a very good and flavorful dish, but it is also very hands on, and is not for people who are a little leery of getting dirty.  Fingers are necessary in order to remove the mussels from their shells, the shrimp meat had the tail on it, and it also contained the shrimp heads.  There really wasn't much in the shrimp heads, and it did require a little bit of work to get what little meat was in them.  I imagine that they were added to flavor the stew and you really wouldn't miss much just throwing them out.
Dessert felt very much like a fusion dish.  I had a Flourless Chocolate Cake that was topped with Cachaça Glaze and Creme Anglaise.  I don't really think of flourless chocolate cake as a Latin dish (nor is Creme Anglaise) but Cachaça is the national drink of Brazil.  The glaze went together well with the cake so it did bring the dish back to Brazil somewhat.  It was sweet and dense and the glaze and creme played together well with each other and the cake.  It was a very nice finish to a very good meal and I will definitely try to return because I liked most of my meal and the atmosphere of the restaurant.   

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