La Sirena Clandestina and Carriage House (2012)
Two new reviews for two new restaurants I was thoroughly impressed with. I know people are probably waiting for some negative reviews from me... as the saying, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all," doesn't really have a place in the food blogger world. They will come...trust me. But for now, I like writing about the rainbows and unicorns of my culinary experiences.
La Sirena Clandestina was not really what I was expecting, and I was so happy my expectations were incorrect when I attended on opening night. I was expecting a new Italian restaurant...because as I know, La Sirena Clandestina means "The Secret Mermaid" in Italian.... turns out it also means "The Secret Mermaid" in Spanish. Chef John Manion, has called the cuisine "Latin Local"... apparently meaning using fresh local ingredients to create Latin inspired dishes. He was mainly influenced by the dishes of Argentina and Brazil. Right off the bat, my sensory receptors for anything Italian were lighting up... as much of the cuisine of Brazil and especially Argentina has recognizable Italian undertones. My favorite items were the baked (not fried) Empanadas. The selection of empanadas rotates daily and my favorite dinner date and I (Kara Lichtenstein aka @HungryinChicago) enjoyed the wild mushroom and ham and queso. They were flavorful, authentic, and crisp. No goodness was lost by having them baked...it was quite preferred, actually, as I hate greasy empanadas. The dish that really blew me away was the Charred Baby Octopus Escabeche. Octopus can be tricky...very hard to cook perfectly, and even more difficult to pack full of flavor. Manion's was overflowing with the taste of the Mediterranean. To me, it was Sicily meeting Greece in the most perfect preparation of octopus I've had. A medley of olives, tomato confit, and arugula brought out the flavor of the charred and tender seafood. The larger plate that Kara and I shared was the Pork Milanesa (Ciao Italia!). It was covered with a tasty wild mushroom ragu and my favorite thing a chef could ever add to any dish... a sunny side up egg. The flavor was rich and complex yet the pork was a bit dry and tough...as is the risk with pork in general especially a thinner cut. Yet more good things were to come. Kara and I decided that for desert, instead of sweets, we would eat head on prawns ala plancha. She assured me that my first time sucking shrimp heads would be exquisite, and she was right. The shrimp were incredible and the perfect substitute for Flan any day. The drink menu clearly wants to rival any other mixology experience you might find in Chicago. Justin Anderson's beverage program is bold and delicious. He plays off the Latin influences yet offers twists on many classics. I tried the Cusco Cup which was savory and bitter with the bite of ginger and a welcomed splash of Fernet Branca. Amazing. The overall consensus was: I cannot wait to go back and try everything else on the concise menu. The ambiance was sexy and intimate, the service was quick and attentive, and the food was straightforward , honest, and not overly ambitious.
Carriage House gets it right as well. This ain't your typical Southern cookin'. If you've ever been to South Carolina, and more specifically, Charleston, you'll know immediately what I'm talking about. The Wicker Park venue visually stands out on Division St...it doesn't look like all the other buildings...it, in fact, looks like...well, a carriage house. A big beautiful Carriage House you would find on the quaint cobble stone streets in Charleston. The build out and decor is simple and appealing. The menu items were very traditional, yet the preparation was not. This is a more modern and elaborate take on the Low-Country cuisine staples. They were all there: She-crab soup, fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, grilled oysters.... just glorified. The she-crab soup, while a bit salty, had the distinct low-country flavor while showcasing the crab roe. The fried green tomatoes were served with pickled shrimp on top and unlike many fried green tomatoes, had a perfect batter... not too heavy. The dish that I was really looking forward to was the Shrimp and Grits. When I was in Charleston, I must've had this dish at LEAST once a day. It was served for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Usually it was quite basic... tasty seasoned shrimp enveloped in buttery grits. Carriage House took it to a new level and served the shrimp with heads on (shrimp sucking experience #2 for me) and a hearty pork based gravy smothered the grits. All the dishes were visually attractive and incredibly full of flavor. The drink menu was playful and eclectic... they scored major points by having a cocktail called the "Lionel Hutz" -named after one of my favorite characters from my all-time favorite show, The Simpsons. Yet, the drink I had was slightly disappointing. I ordered the Rum Punch. Usually these are refreshing and fruity (even though I'm not usually a "sweet" kinda gal) but this version was potent and had very little of the fresh fruity flavor I was hoping for. I will say I'd love to go back soon. The staff was great, and Executive Chef, Mark Steuer (previously of Bedford, Hot Chocolate), was very welcoming. I had tweeted the restaurant earlier in the day to say I was looking forward to my visit and Chef Mark sent out his delectable low-country oyster roast for me to try and made sure to say hello before I left. I praised him for doing Low-Country cuisine justice.
Both of these restaurants stood out to me for the same reasons. They bring something unique to Chicago. It's not the same old sushi place, or a restaurant concept trying to copy all the legions of other "new" played out restaurant concepts. The ideas were bold and risky, but their food ensures they should be able to succeed among Chicagoans who are looking for a fresh and fulfilling restaurant experience.