New York Times food critic Pete Wells reviewed Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich‘s new restaurant, La Sirena this week. It’s not what you’d expect. If you’ve been to Lupo, Casa Mono, or Babbo, you know that a hotel restaurant that seats close to 400 people when it’s at capacity isn’t their signature. The menu isn’t exactly what you might picture either. If you’re looking for “fresh insights into Italian cuisine,” look elsewhere. “There’s orecchiette with tripe but no lambs’ tongue Jim Harrison (Casa Mono) or pajata finta (Lupa).” What there is, however, is some really good food.
The menu is full of things like meatballs, pasta, and “clams baked under bread crumbs and oregano.” You know, the usual. Something for everyone. “There is, in other words, very little breaking news, but what Mr. Laurano does, he tries to do with care and vigor and enough flourishes to keep your mind from wandering too far.
In one appetizer, pickled anchovies sprawl over variations on fennel: shavings of the raw bulb in lemon and olive oil, other slices browned to a crisp, and fennel pollen, which carries its licorice sweetness around the plate. In another, fat roasted asparagus spears under grated smoked ricotta are piled over a cushion of cacio whipped with egg. Both are generous in size and flavor.
Lasagna is layered with al dente wheels of waxy potato and a pesto as vibrant as if the basil had been picked 10 minutes ago. Tomatoes braised with spare ribs make a compelling sauce of ridged mini-torpedoes of cavatelli. Bucatini with bites of octopus, right on the border between firm and tender, have a tomato sauce with that low murmur of chile heat Mr. Batali’s restaurants are so adept at delivering.
If you can’t decide between two of the pastas, order a half portion of each for $24.
Standout entrees include lamb chops, which come with “a sweet-sour pomegranate molasses sauce and round chickpea-flour fritters,” and swordfish, which sits in “Sicilian tomato sauce with capers, olives, pine nuts and currants.”
Other dishes faltered. Don’t go for the pork chop milanese; its breading is too thick. The porchetta alla Romana was also disappointing, and the linguine with clams was “pure Mulberry Street.”
The desserts are “nothing but sophisticated pleasure.”
The dining room is busy. According to Wells, servers never stop moving. The company is growing, and he’s worried about entropy. On one visit with his son, despite his telling two different people that his son had a severe sesame allergy, he was served breadsticks with sesame seeds inside them. His son had an allergic reaction. Despite a personal call from Batali, which as a parent made him happy, as a critic, he wonders what could happen as B&B Hospitality group grows larger. It’s worth thinking about.
Overall? Two stars.
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