The last time Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich opened a New York restaurant outside of a supermarket was eleven years ago, in 2005, long before there was ever a Marea, a Santina, a Great Recession or even an iPhone. Back then, Batali and Bastianich were the top players in Manhattan’s white-hot Italian renaissance, and their newest establishment, Del Posto, would go on to become one of the city’s most heralded culinary establishments.
But in the decade that followed, things changed. Batali and Bastianich had brought New York into the era of regional Italian fare, but the evolution kept going: from the haute red saucery of Carbone, to the quirky "Cheesus Christ" pizzas of Roberta’s, to the wood-fired lamb steaks of Lilia. The landscape has evolved, which makes the question of La Sirena, the latest Batali/Bastianich endeavor, a fascinating one. Can two of the city’s great Italian restaurateurs return to the forefront and wow us with a Tao-sized Italianate hangout, conveniently located directly above the actual Tao?
To be brief: They do not wow us. Del Posto was one of the most important restaurant openings of its era, but La Sirena is just another newcomer, another Italian restaurant that happens to serve a hamburger.
But the good news is that it’s a nice enough place to drink a daytime martini and pick at a plate of excellent rigatoni carbonara while watching all the pretty people on an al fresco terrace that alone is more than twice the square footage of most New York restaurants. Who are we to protest the pleasure of that? Tao, after all, isn’t open for brunch.
La Sirena is just another newcomer, another Italian restaurant that happens to serve a hamburger.
Like its downstairs neighbor, La Sirena is located in the Maritime Hotel. There are plenty of ambitious hotel restaurants in New York, but La Sirena isn’t trying to be one of them. In case there’s any doubt about the gravitational forces exerted by Mario Batali, the lower Chelsea/upper Meatpacking neighborhood, or the Maritime Hotel itself, let me clear things up: At any given night at La Sirena, a restaurant spanning the length of a full city block, with 210 indoor seats and a hundred more outdoors, the whole place is packed. Patrons dress as if they’re going clubbing after they finish their sugar-dusted bomboloni (made by former Le Bernardin pastry chef Michael Laiskonis), clad in leather pants, leather jackets, leather dresses with leather epaulettes, and see-through blouses.
This crowd is primed for $23 vodka cocktails, and they’re readily available. A bartender mixes Absolut Elyx ("the world’s first true luxury vodka"), with sloeberry gin, cocchi Americano, and dry cider, and pours it into an ornamental copper pineapple that you can, if you’d like to recreate the experience at home, purchase for $98 on the Elyx website. You pick it up with a firm grip, because the entire concoction feels as if it weighs six pounds, and you sip, via a metal straw, a liquid that evokes the sensation of putting your face over an alcohol-filled humidifier. The drink is a triumph for vodka as a neutral spirit, but a failure as a cocktail that will cost more than most late-night cab rides. I sampled it alongside an inconsistently butchered short rib carpaccio that, depending on the bite, exhibited the texture of perfect raw beef or of dry-aged Saran Wrap.
At La Sirena, which boasts a sweepingly curvilinear midcentury aesthetic, the soundtrack runs to the nondescript club bangers you might encounter at spin class, and the menu resembles that of a run-of-the-mill trattoria. Your cavatelli with pork ribs (blubbery and undercooked) or your linguine with clam sauce (microwave-quality) are both served tableside, a dramatic flourish that does nothing to improve the actual dishes themselves; the pastas are simply scooped out of a pan and dropped on a plate. We’re forced to watch as the servers dazzle everyone with their Vegas buffet tong skills.
Fried soft shell crabs with ramps serve as a phoned-in curtsey to the season, while a dish of baked clams, generally a way to intensify the mollusks’ tang through heat and butter, acts as a study in how to camouflage bland shellfish under too many bread crumbs. A server sternly warns the table about the intensely briny punch of a bottarga-topped plate of artichoke hearts, but his dehortations are for naught: The dish turns out to be as insipid as banquet-hall green salad.
Fettuccine verde is neither overcooked enough to be mushy nor undercooked to be al dente; it simply a caloric conduit for crumbly sausage bolognese. Better is the amatriciana ravioli, little dumplings of sweet tomato sauce and guanciale — they’re topped with verdant scallions, a nod to the Roman dish’s traditional onions. There’s the creative Batali that we know. The kitchen slathers caserecce pasta (a cousin to fusilli) with a gossamer coating of broccoli rabe pesto, chiles, and sesame, imparting the noodles with an assertively nutty and exhilaratingly bitter finish. And spicy octopus bucatini is an elegant essay in heat, tomato sauce, and soft cephalopod flesh.
Desserts, at the hands of pastry chef Laiskonis, are the only real showstoppers here.
Mains are about what one might expect from any restaurant anywhere in the city: meatballs over kale, chicken topped with peppers, sea bream with crispy skin. Just be sure to avoid the under-rendered duck breast with a carrot sauce that has all the complexity of Gerber baby food. And the brunch burger is an easy contender for one of the city’s lousiest new dishes. While Shake Shack sells a double patty stack with a gorgeous griddle char for $8.75, La Sirena uses onions, a potato roll, and mozzarella to mask two grey pucks that that have seen less salt than a communion wafer, served with under-crisped fries. Cost: $21.
Desserts, at the hands of pastry chef Laiskonis, are the only real showstoppers here, from the soft baba with its gently bitter Campari infusion, to the pignoli tart with its pecan pie-like texture, to the $19 brunch pastry basket with its collection of buttery kouign ammans and cloudlike cheddar biscuits.
Bastianich and Batali have always been shrewd with their branding choices. Lupa is widely recognized as one of New York’s finest Roman restaurants. Casa Mono is one of the city’s few Michelin-starred Spanish spots. Otto is a reliable place for inexpensive pastas and pizzas. And then there are the twin jewels of the duo’s New York empire: Babbo and Del Posto. In the timeline of New York restaurants, Babbo is an essential precursor to restaurants like Momofuku and the Spotted Pig, serving up some of the city’s most iconic and creative pastas, at relatively accessible prices, to a soundtrack of Eminem and Led Zeppelin. In his 2004 review of the restaurant, then-New York Times critic Frank Bruni cited Babbo’s choice of music (and the volume at which it was blasted) as a reason for withholding a fourth star from the venue. But the music never changed — and the crowds never subsided. Del Posto, in contrast, does not play Eminem. It boasts a grand piano, a grand marble staircase, and refined presentations available only as set menus.
The ovular blue-and-white pattern of La Sirena’s terrazzo marble floors is repeated on the tableware, part of an overall aesthetic that extends to the outdoor patio and even the iPad wine lists, specially designed to harmonize with the restaurant’s elegant motif. It’s too bad that brief nod to technology doesn’t extend to waiter-free drone ordering: Getting a drink when you’re seated at a table can require as much strategic patience as jockeying for a gin & tonic at McFadden’s during happy hour. Vespers and fennel margaritas (both of which are excellent) never seem to arrive until you’re three-quarters of the way finished with whatever you wanted to nibble on as you sipped them.Service as a whole ranged from passable to terrible during my visits; in this regard, La Sirena serves as an unwitting social experiment in how poorly New York diners will allow themselves to be treated in exchange for a seat at at a decked-out space run by a celebrity chef in a hip part of town. I watched a patron carry three cocktails as he walked from the bar to the lounge, a difficult task because most humans only have two hands; he passed by three waiters, none of whom offered any assistance. I almost walked out one night when, after being seated just after 10 p.m., a server didn’t ask what we wanted to order until nearly 10:30 p.m. On a Saturday at brunch time, I watched a waiter squirt green juice into shot glasses from a drippy squeeze bottle and deliver it as an amuse to every table but mine.
Of course, not every restaurant has to be Del Posto or Babbo. But coming from Batali, a restaurant has to be better than this.
The salami cart, which regularly makes the rounds in the bar room to sell parmesan, olives, and cured meats, instantly appeared by my side on the night Joe Bastianich warmly greeted me at the door. I couldn’t tell you whether it’s because he recognized me, or because the staff is more on point when he’s in the house, but I do know that on other evenings, I was entirely invisible to the salami man.
I’m a regular at the bar at the majestic Del Posto, where I happily part with $100 for a plate or two of pasta and a few cocktails. And I dined at Babbo recently, and can confirm that nearly twenty years after opening, it’s as relevant as ever. Of course, not every restaurant has to be Del Posto or Babbo. But coming from Batali, a restaurant has to be better than this.
Cost: Starters: $15-$17; pastas: $19-$26; mains: $25-$28. Steak for two: $120.
Sample dishes: Caserecce with chile and sesame, bucatini with spicy octopus, ravioli amatriciana, beef braciole, pine nut crostata.
What to drink: The poorly concocted copper-pineapple cocktail notwithstanding, La Sirena mixes well-balanced (albeit expensive) drinks. Highlights include the fennel margarita ($16), which manages to keep its herbaceous overtones in check, the classic Vesper (gin, vodka, Cocchi vermouth, $17), and the “There Can Only Be One” (scotch, lemon, honey, $18).
Bonus tip: No dining at the bar just yet. Prime time reservations can get snapped up a few weeks in advance. Bar room and patio tables, which make up about a third of the restaurant, are reserved for walk-ins.