Mario Batali Strikes Hot Spot Gold Again, 18 Years After Babbo
It’s Friday night in Chelsea and the women with beautifully gelled eyebrows and sequin boleros are flagging down the salami cart.
This isn’t a euphemism: In the gleaming dining rooms of La Sirena, the latest restaurant from celebrity chef Mario Batali and his partner Joe Bastianich, there’s a roving antipasti station delivering piles of olives, cheese, and salami. It’s one of the successful elements of this new diadem of the Maritime Hotel, which has drawn crowds since the restaurant opened in February.
La Sirena’s combined dining rooms and lounge—all white tile and echoed yelps—can seat 200 people. On most nights they do, with dozens more standing by the packed bar, sipping amaro-darkened cocktails, or leaning in the doorway to the hotel lobby, arguing on the phone with their nannies and their dealers. When the weather is good, the waiters push La Sirena’s floor-to-ceiling windows open onto the terrace, so while you work on a ricotta-filled orb of mozzarella, you can catch the occasional whiffs of weed and cigarette smoke from club-goers drifting from velvet rope to velvet rope. Soon, weather permitting, 100 seats will be added to the terrace, along with a crudité and bagna cauda cart. It'll be a good place to sip a spritz on a slow, sunny afternoon.
The menu at La Sirena is Italian, but in a more general way than chef Josh Laurano's prior joint, Lupa (which cooks Roman food). There’s a long list here of antipasti, pastas, and a range of entrees that include things you’d expect, such as a fish for two and a steak for two. All the pasta, with the exception of a dried bucatini, is made in house, and one of the best is the pici, a perfectly fat, hand-rolled spaghetti that tapers off at the ends. It’s served in a rich, slippery sauce of pork sausage and escarole, and it’s the kind of dish that can send you into a fugue state, eating nonstop, forgetting your wine, your friends, your white shirt, yourself, until your plate is nearly clean.
There aren’t quite enough dishes that do that at La Sirena, though there are lovely marinated anchovies draped over croutons with paper-thin slices of fennel, and juicy clams under deeply golden breadcrumbs. Laurano serves those with slices of quick-salted lemon preserved in olive oil and a fantastic chili sauce. The only complaint you might have here is that for $17, maybe there should be more than seven clams.
But fullness isn’t the only way to measure satisfaction. You go to La Sirena with an appetite for the kind of burly Italian cooking you’ve come to expect from Batali, as well as for the glamour. The crowd is wealthy and well-dressed and wants to be seen. Maybe you’d catch more celebrities walking through the bar (hey, isn’t that the guy who played Charlotte’s wedding planner on Sex and the City?), if it weren’t so crowded.
On Tuesday nights, fried sweetbreads alla diavola are cheekily served “Buffalo-style” because they come with a little braised and raw celery. The sweetbreads are crisp and sweet in pools of a vicious-looking sauce that really scorches with the intense fire of Calabrian chilis. On the other end of the heat spectrum, a delicious white lasagna is all comforting, squishy blandness in a stack of super-soft potato, milk sauce, and cheese, as if made to thrill a few small and exceptionally picky children. An Amatriciana ravioli is simple, with a filling that’s pared down to the classic sauce’s essentials of guanciale and its rendered fat, lovingly holding together the red onion, tomato, and pecorino. It’s delicious under a splat spring onion butter.
Service is polite, going through all the choreography of hospitality but too often without the energy or enthusiasm required to make it convincing. La Sirena certainly looks like the kind of restaurant where dinner is a glamorous occasion, but it doesn’t always feel like it. On one occasion, the ribs of caserecce, in a salty puree of broccoli raab, were so waterlogged and banged up, half of them had split open. It was a rare misstep, but it registered: The restaurant is expensive and has gone in on white tablecloths and sharply dressed servers that set expectations high.
Dessert meets them. Michael Laiskonis, previously the pastry chef at Le Bernardin and currently creative director of the Institute of Culinary Education, is responsible for them. Don’t miss the pine nut tart, which resembles a fluffy pecan pie, full of flavor without any of the goopy, sugary sludge.
By the end of the night, you’ll have noticed the pattern running through La Sirena’s design. The votive candleholder matches the tiled floor in the bar matches the paper under your tiny espresso with a sidecar of whipped cream. Like La Sirena, it's fun and very pretty, in a matchy-matchy kind of way.
La Sirena is at 88 9th Ave. in the Maritime Hotel (Chelsea); +1 (212) 977-6096 or lasirena-nyc.com
Rating: One star (Good)
What to Order: House-marinated fresh anchovies ($15); Buricotta with preserved lemon and peas ($16); Grilled quail with ramps and rhubarb ($17); Pici with sausage and escarole ($19); Ravioli all’Amatriciana ($24); Fried rabbit ($26); Pine nut tart ($14)
Who’s Next to You: Women in bandage dresses and silk culottes; Groups of men in shiny shirts and loafers without socks; Escorts at work; Mario Cantone