Clandestine cookery at La Sirena Clandestina 

At John Manion's new restaurant, the mermaid mascot isn't its only elusive element. The flavor's missing too.

Sea bass en cazuela, bathed in a thin, salty coconut broth spiked weakly with curry

Sea bass en cazuela, bathed in a thin, salty coconut broth spiked weakly with curry

Andrea Bauer

No way not to reveal myself as a rube: what I liked most at John Manion's new Fulton Market restaurant, La Sirena Clandestina, were the fries. Incidentally or not, they were also a highlight of an overall-mediocre meal I had a couple years back at a previous Manion concern, the near-west bistro Branch 27. I'm saying the guy's got a flair for frites—a simple dish that, done well, is nothing but satisfaction—and his work at La Sirena Clandestina chases that ideal, emphasizing good ingredients cooked right. It's nothing if not, well, workmanlike—efficient, competent, and not particularly exciting.

For several years Manion has been something of a vagrant, visiting kitchens throughout town and helping to spiff up their menus—before Branch 27, he pitched in at Goose Island's Clybourn brewpub. La Sirena grew out of a series of pop-up dinners Manion hosted starting in 2011; now with a permanent home for his cooking, the chef returns to the Latin American flavors that put him on the local map with late, lamented Mas, which closed in 2008. His influence here is largely the cuisine of Brazil, where he spent time as a child. The regional influence is brought to bear on those frites—perfect, crisp, and salty, strewn with chunks of garlic—in the form of an accompanying aioli made with funky malagueta pepper, a plant native to Brazil. It tasted of brine and spice and was so surpassingly good that I ended up dipping bites of most every other dish on the table into it.

Which was because most every other bite on the table lacked anything approaching the forthright, confident flavors of that singular condiment. This, the restaurant's most frustrating flaw, seems to be by design. Prior to La Sirena's opening, Manion told Eater that his focus would be "high-quality ingredients cooked correctly and letting the food be the food"—not going wild on the seasoning, in other words.

That's not easy to defend, though, with $28 fried snapper, or with $24 hanger steak, both of which are on the "parilla y playa" section of the menu—the purest expression of Manion's thesis. The steak is cooked well enough inside, and of such high quality, that the flesh shines a deep red, and the meat itself tastes fabulously grassy; but the crust is overcharred and underseasoned, and the chimichurri it's served beneath tastes mostly of parsley, and only faintly of garlic. The snapper effects a striking presentation, arriving at the table whole atop a slick of dende oil (a mild, nutty condiment used in Brazilian and West African cuisines, from the fruit of the African oil palm), hot sauce, and chopped peanuts. A couple of limes on the corner of the plate were the fish's most potent complement, and I fear it'll be read as a knock to both parties if I submit that the dish wasn't wholly different than something you'd find at, say, the Fish Keg. But that's just to suggest that fried fish is really great, and Manion can fry a fish really well, but one wants to see him work a bit harder here to earn his keep.

The same applies to a preparation of chicken thighs, another traditional crowd-pleaser—juicy and tender because it's impossible for them not to be—and another dish cooked to middling: they come with passable rapini, peanuts and chiles, and the fleetingest hint of garlic. The thighs are on Manion's "de la casa" menu, which also includes rabbit, a seafood stew, and sea bass en cazuela, which arrives at the table in a hot cast-iron pot, bathed in a thin, salty coconut broth spiked weakly with curry. If I sampled from this menu again I'd try the Milanesa—breaded pork loin under mushroom ragu and a fried egg that, I suspect, might just stand on its own. Here, it would have to.

Smaller shareable dishes are divided into street foods and sides: of the former, we tried a plate of acaraje, little black-eyed-pea fritters with poached shrimp and some garnishes—pickled onion, hot sauce—that were subtle to the point of nonexistent. Come to think of it the fritters tasted, with their oily crust and brine, more or less like your standard fried fish, too. For sides there are options, decent ones, beyond those holy french fries: pao de queijo is a dense, chewy little cheese bread—like a smooshed gougere—and sauteed collard greens were warm and satisfying.

Wine, beer, and some brightly flavored regional cocktails, such as a tart pisco sour, round out the menu, and provide a reason for this dark, attractive space to stay open till 2 AM; the drinks program is overseen by Justin Anderson, a veteran of Branch 27 and the Bedford. On a recent night there were two options for dessert: sandwich cookies with dulce de leche or a little double-decker disk of delicate, ethereal coconut cheesecake, garnished with a sliver of toasted coconut and just a drop, only the slightest hint, of guava juice. It was a study in restraint that was, finally, admirable—it worked—but I wish that spirit didn't so pervade the menu here. Manion's obviously skillful. Would that he were a bit less shy.

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