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


Thursday, October 11, 2012


When people ask me what the best restaurant in Chicago is, my reply is "I have no idea, but if it's the best cooking you want, that's at Avec."  When I've felt down about what I've eaten lately or about food in general, Avec has cheered me up.  Has an inedible bowl of cartilage-laden crab at the hot new Italian restaurant pissed you off lately?  Go to Avec and discouragement will vanish.  Avec takes food seriously.  Even restaurants I like sometimes fail to clean shellfish completely, occasionally overcook a piece of fish, or forget to taste a dish for seasoning once in a while.  In dozens of meals at Avec, it's been my experience that that kind of thing just doesn't happen there.  Never.  Of course, it's not enough to merely avoid screwing up.  Right now, Avec is also putting out some of the most flavorful, exciting food in town.

On a cold fall afternoon, you won't find a dish that warms the soul more than the wood-fired squid cooked and served in a piping hot cast-iron cazuuela with fideos, tomato, and guanciale.  The fideos seem to wiggle around in your mouth, adding a playful texture to an otherwise seriously rich, garlicky, and smoky dish.  I had a similar dish at Avec a year ago, and while I liked it then, this was a whole different level of delicious.  One difference came in the aioli that topped the cazuela; last time it was a somewhat bland cream that didn't add much, but this time the aioli was flavored robustly with fennel, simultaneously adding a jolt to the dish while bringing all of the ingredients into harmony.

The sweet, moist flesh of merluza at Avec is going to make it hard for me to eat fish anywhere else.  Merluza isn't the cheapest type of fish at the market, but it's not the most expensive of luxury ingredients either.  If what's served as Avec is representative, merluza should cost double what lobster or dover sole are fetching.   This fish tasted similar to but even sweeter than halibut, but was substantially meatier and more interesting to eat.  I don't know if it's the fish or the cook or, quite likely, a combination, but I want more merluza right now.  As with the fennel aioli with the squid, the creamy garlic sauce with the merluza was robust but sweet, rounded and not overpowering.  With a bit of grapefruit juice that seeped from the bright pink segments garnishing the plate, the garlic sauce turned into something magical, and with bitter treviso and sweet, tiny olives, it was a wonderful complement for the fish.

Veal sweetbreads seem to be the ingredient du jour around town these days, and perhaps excepting The Trenchermen, nobody is doing them on par with or better than Avec.  One huge, meaty, crisp but incredibly tender specimen was served with pungent cauliflower caponata and a slice of crisped Serrano ham across the top.  Nothing fancy, just absolutely delicious.

That's Avec.  No soil on a plate, no delicious liquids turned into chalky powders, no gimmicks.  Just straightforward, fantastic food.  Just the best cooking in Chicago.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

RPM Italian

With the celebrity fanfare combined with bad experiences at recent LEYE openings, when RPM Italian initially opened I didn't take it seriously.  Then some relatively positive reviews seemed to indicate that there might be real cooking going on, and I became intrigued enough to take the short walk from work for an early dinner.  I should have trusted my initial thoughts.

On what RPM calls a Bolognese sauce, I am calling boloney.  It's just an overly sweet tomato sauce with some shreds of slow cooked meat in it.  I'd wager that the meat and the sauce met shortly before service, having spent little or no time together on the stove.  And there's way too much of it, overwhelming what were actually pretty good house made parpardelle.  A loveless dish.

I had to send back my squid ink pasta with crab after awkwardly spitting out two 3-inch pieces of cartilage which came from the first two bites.  Crab isn't easy to clean, but this was a ridiculous level of carelessness or incompetence.  I didn't get far enough into this dish to determine whether it had any potential.

Stuffed, fried olives were a tasty snack, but paled in comparison to other versions I've had.  If you're ever lucky enough to be at Spacca Napoli when Jonathan Goldsmith is handing out his version for free to waiting patrons, you'll know how wonderful stuffed, fried olives can be.  By comparison, RPM's were an amateurish rendition with olives that were too small to stuff with any meaningful flavor.

Gelato which a manager brought me for free to make up for the crab debacle was icy but tasty.

There may be reasons to go to RPM Italian, but food isn't one of them.