Entries in La Sirène (3)


La Sirène

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Part of a critic’s job is to direct readers to great restaurants they wouldn’t otherwise discover. Unfortunately, most of New York’s professional critics seldom have time to do so. With just one published review per week, it’s all they can do to keep up with new restaurants that, for all intents and purposes, must be reviewed.

lasirene.gifSo we were gratified to see Frank Bruni’s review of La Sirène—a restaurant we’d never heard of. We’re not sure how Bruni even found the place. When it opened in May 2007, every critic in town ignored it, except for Time Out New York, which awarded four-of-six stars. (TONY’s ratings are a bit odd sometimes, but they have one of the most thorough dining-out sections in town.)

Bruni awarded one star, but you shouldn’t be deceived by that. One star is supposed to mean “good,” and though the stars have been debased over the years, this was one of those rare reviews in which one star was a compliment: Bruni loved the place.

So did we.

lasirene_inside.jpgThe name means “The Mermaid,” perhaps a nod to chef Didier Pawlicki’s Marseille roots. The minimal décor in this tiny slip of a restaurant is faintly nautical, though there’s red meat on the menu too, in addition to the obligatory fish and seafood, especially mussels.

Pawlicki is a constant presence in the dining room, explaining himself and seeking our approval. He served the hangar steak at a table next to ours, and said, “Here it is, medium. I refuse to cook it medium well.” At another, he served sea bass and explained how much of the fish gets thrown away to yield just one filet. To us, he explained the sweet–sour balance of the chocolate in the profiteroles.

Time Out New York called Pawlicki the “Cockiest chef with the goods to back it up.” (The little plaque the magazine gave him is hanging proudly on the wall.) On Citysearch.com, Pawlicki adds a personal comment to every review. The overwhelming majority of those reviews are positive.

On the classic bistro menu, which changes seasonally, appetizers are $7.50–$13.95, entrées $19.50–$28.50, desserts $7.50–$12.75. There are four different preparations of mussels, $12.75 as an appetizer, $21.75 as an entrée. It is probably time that Pawlicki rounded his prices off to the nearest dollar.

These prices have risen considerably since TONY reported that the average entrée was just $20. But La Sirène is more-or-less in line with other places serving food of comparable quality. The restaurant is also BYOB, and apparently has no plans to obtain a liquor license. This reduces the de facto cost of dinner considerably.

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Some of the menu descriptions mix French and English in almost comical ways, such as “Brie, Blue Cheese et Chèvre Rotis sur Croutons a l’ail et Salade Verte” ($13.75); that’s brie, blue and goat cheese on garlic croutons over greens. Our other starter, Gateaux de Crabe ($11.85), speaks for itself.

Both appetizers were adequate but unmemorable, and the plating of the crab dish wasn’t very attractive.

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Hangar Steak, or Onglet Poêlé à la Facon Luchonaise ($24.50) was wonderful. The menu pronounces it the “Signature Main Course.” The steak was lightly seared, cut in thin ribbons fanned around the plate, served with a garlic and parsley sauce, and with a brick of sweet potatoes in the center. Hangar steak can sometimes be tough, but Pawlicki’s version was so tender you’d think it was rib-eye.

lasirene03.jpgMy girlfriend had the terrific Kassoulet Toulousain de la Maison ($26.95), with cannellini beans, tomato, duck leg confit, bacon and pork sausage, all braised with “duck fat yummy!!!”

The challenge with this dish is to ensure the ingredients maintain their clarity; the last two places I’ve had it, the cassoulet was over-cooked, and it the flavor had all boiled away. Here, it was just about perfect.

The entrées came with “veggies du moment” (left), served family style.


The profiteroles have apparently been controversial, with some diners complaining the chocolate was too bitter, though others seemed to love it. Pawlicki yanked it from the menu, but he was able to whip up a batch rather quickly when Frank Bruni and his friends asked for it.

Anyhow, it’s back, along with Pawlicki’s quirky description: 

Grand Profiteroles au “Bittersweet” Chocolat (Good to Share)
Back on the Menu due to Overwhelming demand. (You like it, Good. You don’t, it will stay this time! This isn’t Hershey’s Chocolate, but Callebaut!

Pawlicki ain’t kidding when he says “Good to Share.” With three pastries, each stuffed with ice cream, and the whole plate slathered in chocolate and whipped cream, even two people will struggle to finish it. We certainly didn’t. We can understand the “overwhelming demand” for this excellent dish, but it’s the most expensive dessert on the menu ($12.75). It should probably be scaled back a bit.

The early TONY review referred to an “empty dining room,” but that isn’t the case now. La Sirène has been discovered, and it was full on a Friday night. There are two servers for twenty-five seats, but they’re patient and polished, despite the slightly hectic atmosphere. The ambiance is decidedly informal—you have to pass through the cramped kitchen to get to the restroom—but there’s a romantic rusticity here that is instantly endearing. We suspect that La Sirène will remain a neighborhood classic for some time to come.

Note that, except for AMEX, credit cards are currently not accepted.

La Sirène (558 Broome Street, just east of Varick Street, SoHo)

Food: *½
Service: **
Ambiance: *
Overall: *½


The Payoff: La Sirène

Today, Frank Bruni awards one star to an “oddly compelling little bistro,” La Sirène:

I don’t want to oversell La Sirène, which opened last spring. It operates on a shoestring, doesn’t have a liquor license and doesn’t ace many of the dishes on its relatively short French menu…

And drawing attention to La Sirène runs the risk of overcrowding it. It has only about 25 seats and not an inch to spare, so if your table isn’t ready you have to stand outside, where you’re treated to an intimate view of cars streaming into the Holland Tunnel.

But this scrappy restaurant, where you can hear the bell every time a dish is ready and heat from the kitchen steams diners’ eyeglasses, will charm many people turned off by the vacuous polish and higher prices elsewhere. With no corkage fee, it’s a solid option for wine drinkers seeking liberation from restaurant markups.

Though he loved the place, only five paragraphs mention the food. The rest is about the cramped ambiance and chef Didier Pawlicki’s penchant for responding personally to Internet critiques on sites like citisearch.com.

But I loved the review anyway. It was one of the rare Bruni reviews that called attention to a worthy restaurant that all the other critics had missed. Usually, he just follows breadcrumb trails already well paved by others.

And it was one of the rare one-star reviews that was actually positive. Too often, Bruni’s one-star reviews read like a list of regrets that he couldn’t award a higher rating. One star is supposed to mean “good,” and there ought to be no shame in that.

Lastly, as I mentioned yesterday, this seems to be the first time that Bruni has actually gone out of his way to review a French restaurant. I don’t want to celebrate prematurely, but perhaps he is finally expanding his interests beyond Italian, Asian and Steakhouses.

In the betting department, we’re a loser again this week. We acknowledged that one star was the most likely outcome, but with Eater offering 15–1 odds on the higher rating, we couldn’t help but take the chance, though we must admit it’s a betting strategy that has never yet worked. But because this was such a good week for Bruni, we actually don’t mind losing. The review was at the higher end of one star, as we expected, but one star nevertheless.

Eater wins $4, while we lose $1.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $74.50   $85.67
Gain/Loss +4.00   –1.00
Total $78.50   $84.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 34–14   33–15

BruniBetting: La Sirène

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni has an under-the-radar special: La Sirène. The Eater oddsmakers have set the odds as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 3-1
One Star: 4-1 √√
Two Stars:
Three Stars: 75-1
Four Stars: 25,000-1

The Skinny: It’s hard for a reviewed restaurant to be more obscure than this one. La Sirène—that’s French for The Mermaid—has been in business for nine months, and I can’t find a single professional review. How did it even come to Bruni’s notice? Well, it does seem to be popular in the gay community. (I am not suggesting that that’s its only attraction.)

The Eater odds today are really crazy. Frank has never pulled a restaurant “out of nowhere” to give it zero stars. It makes no sense to waste a reviewing slot on a place the critics have already ignored anyway, only to suggest that it’s not worth our time.

When Frank reviews a small, earnest restaurant that’s off the beaten path, the rating is usually two stars. After all, one star in the Bruniverse isn’t much of a compliment for restaurants above the level of a deli. One star used to mean “good,” but the truly good one star review is a rarity nowadays.

To the best of our recollection, this is the first time Bruni has reviewed a French restaurant that wasn’t, in some sense, “compelled.” La Sirène is a restaurant he could easily have skipped—after all, every other critic did. When Bruni goes out of his way, it’s usually Italian, Asian, or Steak. So what’s going on here? Bruni must really have been smitten.

We hesitate to jump on the deuce train. For one thing, it’s BYOB, and that’s a rare deficiency in a two-star restaurant (though not unheard of in the Bruni era). Also, what is the probability that there’s a two-star restaurant that every other critic completely overlooked? Assuming that chef Didier Pawlicki’s cuisine is worthy of Frank’s attention, the rating could come down to service, and we have no reliable data points from which to judge.

Our usual practice here is to bet on the most probable outcome, which we believe is one star. But we are positive that if Bruni bothered to put this restaurant on his reviewing rounds, he must have found something extremely compelling, and he would just love to pull the two-star trigger if he could. Therefore, Eater’s 15–1 odds on that outcome are just as crazy as Eater’s 3–1 odds on a goose egg.

Perhaps Eater is just toying with us, but we can’t leave an attractive 15–1 spot hanging like that.

The Bet: Although we believe one star is the most probable outcome, we are laying a wager on the huge payday that the Eater oddsmakers have offered, and are betting that Frank Bruni will award two stars to La Sirène.