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Amish chicken thighs with rapini; photography by Anthony Tahlier

Secret’s Out

by Lisa Shames | CS magazine | January 29, 2013

It had been barely a week after opening in mid-October when the glowing tweets and Facebook posts from some of the city’s top chefs and restaurateurs started appearing. La Sirena Clandestina (“the hidden mermaid”), John Manion’s Brazilian-inspired restaurant in the Fulton Market area, didn’t stay hidden for long. 

And who can blame them? La Sirena has all the qualities those working in the industry—and, for that matter, the rest of us, too—crave on a night off or after a long shift. With just 50 seats, it’s intimate without being claustrophobic. Reclaimed wood dominates the interior, including the floor, tabletops and bar, giving it a lived-in look and feel, while the muted lighting means everyone looks good. Servers are friendly, cocktails are potent, soothing bossa nova music plays in the background and a late-night menu is there for the asking. And Manion’s food is definitely part of the lure, too.

If Manion’s name sounds familiar, perhaps you remember him from Mas, his modern Latin restaurant (ahead of its time, if you ask me), which closed in 2008. Or maybe you tried his food when he was at Goose Island, where he brought in a nose-to-tail mentality. No, wait, it must have been when he was at Branch 27. Heck, the last time I saw Manion he was manning the wood-burning oven at Taylor Street’s Urban Union, helping out chef-friend Michael Shrader and killing time while he waited for his own place to open.

And now that it has, I’d say that wanderlust has paid off. There’s a sense that La Sirena Clandestina knows exactly what it wants to be, which in these days of restaurants trying to be everything to everyone, is harder than it sounds. Given the fact that La Sirena actually grew out of the pop-up dinners Manion hosted in the former Dodo restaurant space, giving him the opportunity to nail down the concept, that confidence makes sense.

Take, for instance, the empanadas from the De la Calle (“street food”) section of the menu. (The menu also includes De la Casa, larger plates; Al Lado, side dishes; and Parilla y Playa, grilled and seafood dishes.) Baked not fried, our server is quick to inform, the turnovers have a terrific flaky crust, and the fillings, which change daily and might include pulled pork or squash with goat cheese, are packed with flavor and freshness. While La Sirena’s compact menu reflects Manion’s childhood spent in Brazil and visits to other South American countries, local, market-driven ingredients come into play as well.

Seafood is all over the menu here and is the main component of some of my favorite dishes.

Ceviche, served with housemade saltines, has less of that acidic bite often found elsewhere, which allows the taste of the fish—swordfish on my visit—to shine through. The large plate of sea bass en cazuela arrives in a big black pot (the “cazuela”). When set on the table, its top is removed by the server, followed by a banana leaf that covers its contents. The smell of the curry in the brothlike sauce is intoxicating, even better when you actually eat the tender pieces of fish and toothsome clams in it.

As good as that dish is, it’s the moqueca, a stew of shrimp, mussels and whitefish studded with tomato pieces and topped with chopped nuts, that I can’t stop thinking about. The cilantro-coconut purée base gives this traditional Brazilian dish a tropical-like aroma. All it needs is some sand to dip my toes into to complete the beach scene.

That lacking, one of the wonderfully balanced cocktails from mixologist Justin Anderson, who worked with Manion at Branch 27, helps with maintaining that vacation vibe, in particular the classic Peruvian pisco sour and the Papí Chulo (tequila reposado, chartreuse, citrus and orange bitters), which is as fun to say as it is to drink. There’s also a varied selection of craft beers and interesting wines by the glass.

As someone who’s not a fan of chicken breasts, I’m pleased to see thighs on the menu. The skin of the two pieces of Amish chicken is crispy, while the meat is juicy. The slight bitterness of the garlic- and chile-spiked rapini served underneath helps cut through the dish’s richness.

Red meat—this is Chicago, after all—is represented here, too, including a hanger steak from the Parilla y Playa section. Definitely not lacking in flavor—the chimichurri sauce atop it ups the garlic factor—the four thick pieces of meat aren’t über-tender, but that’s a quality inherent in this cut of meat.

But, unfortunately, all is not perfect in paradise. The head-on prawns, while cooked just right, pack a lot of heat (when my Mexico City-born dining companion says they’re too spicy, I pay attention). That didn’t stop me, though, from sucking out all the juices in the shrimp heads. The rice and beans, and coconut and cilantro risotto suffer from the opposite problem: not enough seasoning. And if you’re looking for bread to soak up those amazing sauces, there isn’t any. While the sphere-shaped pão de queijo, Brazilian cheese bread, is really good, its dense texture doesn’t make it an ideal sopper-upper. Plus, desserts are limited to just two—I did like the alfajores, buttery shortbread cookies filled with dulce de leche—and reservations aren’t accepted, although that’s pretty standard at plenty of new restaurants these days.

While elsewhere these faux pas might come into play when contemplating a return visit, they don’t at La Sirena. Perhaps it’s because everything else is so good. Or maybe it’s because everyone is so darn nice. (I overheard a diner tell a server to “thank your staff for us” for the way they took care of their two kids.)

Which leaves me with one final thought: Manion, please stay put.

La Sirena Clandestina
954 W. Fulton Market, 312.226.5300

Open for dinner nightly

Small plates and sides $3-$13
Large plates $16-$28
Desserts $4

What to Eat
Empanadas, moqueca, crispy chicken thighs, sea bass en cazuela

Un-Flour Power
Those on a gluten-free diet will definitely appreciate the Brazilian cheese bread (pao de queijo) made from cassava flour.

Top Chefs
Although it had already been open three months when I visited, La Sirena Clandestina still is a great restaurant for chef-spotting.

Check, Please!
Be sure to grab the postcard that comes with your check. The colorful mermaid design is from local artist Tony Fitzpatrick.