You should never come out of a restaurant having paid $50 for your meal and feeling like it was a waste of money. You know it’s not worth it when your favorite part – not to mention the largest portion – of the meal was the $6 garlic fries.
Still, that’s how I felt leaving La Sirena Clandestina in West Loop a few weeks ago, like I could have better spent that $50 on something else.
I don’t know if chef/owner John Manion was working in the kitchen when my friends and I went for dinner on a Friday night, but ultimately, I felt that the running theme throughout our meal was a disappointing lack of flavor. Further, an exceptionally long wait for food and subsequent lukewarm signature dish coupled with a big check made this a place I wouldn’t bother coming back to. However, if I were in the area and looking for a nice bar to hang out in, I might come back and try a caipirinha, Brazil’s drink of choice.
It’s a small, dimly lit restaurant inspired by mermaids and seafood (“la sirena clandestina means “the hidden mermaid”). There’s a small bar off to the side, and the kitchen specializes in fancy, Brazilian seafood.
Our waiter was super friendly and took time to give us a spiel about the layout of the menu, which was divided roughly into four sections – vegetables, meat, seafood and sides. As you go down each section, the portion sizes and the prices increase.
My Pisco Sour ($12) was delicious – strong from the Peruvian Pisco, creamy with egg white, and sour from the lemon, with a bit of Peruvian bitters and sugar to balance out the flavors. As I said, I might come back if I were around the area and looking for a drink.
In our first round of food, we had garlic frites, the ceviche and pao de queijo.
I could smell the garlic frites ($6) when they were brought to an adjacent table. They were perfectly crispy, and came served with mayo infused with malagueta, a spicy pepper that’s widely used in Brazil. This was the highlight of my meal, because of my natural weakness for fries and that addictive garlicky aroma.
Pao de queijo ($6) are ping pong-sized balls of cheese bread that are very popular in Brazil. You might have had them before at a place like Fogo de Chao. They are crispy and salty on the outside, but chewy and cheesy on the inside. Though they were delectable, four small balls didn’t seem to justify the price.
If you had told me that the ceviche ($16) had corvina – a fish with firm, white meat – in addition to shrimp, I would not have believed you. I dug around in that small dish multiple times to figure out if there was actually fish in it, and it really seemed like it only had shrimp. Anyhow, the ceviche was also prepared with a tomato mojo, seasoned with cilantro, and served with saltines.
I remember once when my family was on vacation in the Bahamas, we had ceviche that was made tableside, and it shocked with me its tang from lime juice and spice from hot peppers. The ceviche at La Sirena Clandestina, however, reminded me more of the chilled shrimp salad that my family often buys from Costco. It was good, but not spectacular, and missing that flavor explosion that I looked for.
At this point in our meal, I was still feeling pretty good about the restaurant, eager to try the Moqueca, the restaurant’s signature seafood dish. However, Vicky, Edwin and I sat around for a good fifteen minutes, wondering when the next round of food would arrive. We picked at the remains of garlic frites and ceviche, until someone came to whisk the near-empty plates away.
Finally, our food arrived, and we dove in eagerly. For the Moqueca, we were advised to separate all of the seafood from its shells and to mix it all in with the risotto it came perched on. We did that.
Then I took a bite – and it was pretty much lukewarm. I couldn’t understand why that was the case when we had waited for so long. It’s like it sat out for a while before it was brought to us.
Between three people, I only got a few mouthfuls of seafood – snapper, clams, mussels, and prawns – though it did taste pretty fresh. The risotto was flavored with cilantro and paired with a coconut broth and dende oil, a bright orange oil popular in Brazilian cooking. The cashews sprinkled over the dish provided a nice crunch that contrasted with the rest of the textures going on, but at the end, I was not convinced that it was worth the $36 it cost.
Moreover, our La Bomba Rice ($19) reminded me vaguely of the rice porridge that my mom makes on weekends for brunch. La Sirena Clandestina’s version, however, had this distinct smoky flavor that almost tasted artificial. It was like something had burned at the bottom of the pot and been stirred in with the rest of the rice porridge. The rice was also blended with broccoli puree and white cheddar, and topped with some rapini – a mix between broccolini and asparagus – and a few parsnip chips. Also lukewarm. Good, but not dazzling.
For $50 a person, I walked out feeling very ambiguous and unsure of how I felt about the experience.
954 W. Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607