Wednesday, October 31, 2012

La Sirena Clandestina

I walked through the door at what turned out to be a few minutes before opening time.  The staff was busy readying for service and I felt bad for interrupting, but right away John Manion smiled and invited me to have a seat while they finished things up.  I felt like a welcomed guest in somebody’s home.  La Sirena Clandestina is a tiny place, decorated humbly but warmly with candles and flowers.  The setting, the smiles and the relative quiet at 4PM were a great respite from the more typical hustle and bustle of other hot new West Loop restaurants.  Things are surely different at prime dinner time and later, but I suspect that at its core, this place will always be warm and welcoming.
The two dishes I had were good, though I wonder if it’s that same vision to be a welcoming respite for all comers which held the food back from being what I’d hoped for.   Take the Acaraje, for instance: black eyed pea fritters which were split and stuffed/ topped with dende-poached shrimp and pickled onions, with dime-sized circles of dark-orange (not that) hot sauce brightly decorating the plate.  It was a pretty dish to look at, and an enjoyable one to eat, with a crisp outer shell giving way to relatively light interior, much like some of the better falafels around town.  The oil poached shrimp had a soft texture and mild, sweet taste.  What’s to complain about?  Nothing, perhaps, but this was my first time trying Acaraje, so I did some research after dinner.  While there seem to be variations, it sounds to me like many of the best and most authentic ones are packed with powerfully-flavored dried shrimp, often pounded  with nuts into a paste, and crispy bits of shrimp shell that provide big taste and crunch.  La Sirena  Clandestina’s dish was good, but it didn’t seem to push the envelope in any way.  It was safe.  As with John Manion himself when I entered the restaurant, the Acaraje wouldn’t turn anyone away.
The same seemed true of the crispy chicken thighs.  They were very nicely done and served with the advertised rapini, chili and garlic.  It was balanced.  It tasted homey.  The use of garlic was very restrained, with just a few ultra-thin fried sliver.  Ditto for the chile.  Certainly I knew they were both there, but for my taste, much, much more punch would have made the dish better. 
It’s a wonderfully inviting space with well-prepared food and one of the friendliest staffs I’ve encountered.  The restaurant deserves to do well.  Based on admittedly limited menu exploration though, the food at La Sirena Clandestina doesn’t quite resonate with me as I’d hoped.
La Sirena Clandestina
954 W. Fulton Market