The sprawling Chelsea restaurant La Sirena, from Italian empire builders Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, is about to undergo some major changes in a bid to be a more ambitious restaurant. Already, they’ve tapped Casa Mono vet chef Anthony Sasso to transform the restaurant’s centerpiece bar room into its own restaurant, Tapas Bar at La Sirena that debuted on Wednesday.
Soon, Batali says Sasso will be working with La Sirena executive chef and partner Josh Laurano to update the restaurant’s two other dining rooms as well. Exact details are still in the works as the team focuses on Tapas Bar, but it will likely offer tastes of Spain and Italy — marking a pivot for the restaurant that was criticized in its first year for being too broad to be particularly interesting.
What Sasso wants to do with Tapas Bar may be a sign of what will come. For one, he wants the food to be playful and at times esoteric, mirroring the tone of the popular and critically beloved, Casa Mono.
Take the jamón de la Bellota globe. Jamón with melon is a tapas standard, but instead of serving the cured meat sliced on a plate, Sasso wraps it around a Himalayan salt globe — the pale pink kind that claims to give off positive ionic energy — so it comes out looking like an orb of fatty white and pink meat. A candle made out of rendered pork fat sits inside. As it melts, diners can slather fat onto bread using a tiny wooden spoon. It’s accompanied by slices of cantaloupe and toast topped with pieces of a dehydrated melon, an ode to a dessert that former Del Posto pastry chef (and bonafide punk rocker) Brooks Headley used to serve to kitchen staff.
- Tapas Bar at La Sirena debuted on Wednesday in the space between dining rooms at the restaurant.
- Sasso puts jamón around a globe. Nick Solares
- Jamón de la Bellota globe, with a manteca candle, buttered toast and Brooks’ cantaloupe crack candy Nick Solares
- Foie gras banana split with nutella, borrachas, tostada, Negroni syrup and amarena cherry Nick Solares
- Pulpo a la plancha with head salpicon, minted kohlrabi and apple salad, and burnt cabbage vin Nick Solares
- “Not Babbo's chickpeas cabron,” with avocado hummus, olives, preserved lemon, puffed basil seeds and balsamic Nick Solares
- Sardinas with spinach a la Catalana, vanilla almond butter, hazelnut raisin jam, and Meyer lemon Nick Solares
- Mini morcilla hot dogs with blood sausage Bolognese, spicy mustard, and turmeric onions Nick Solares
- The cocktail menu is divided between categories like apertivi, fresh and crisp, sours, rich and robust, avante garde, stirred and boozy, and large-format. With the exception of the latter, cocktails run from $13 to $20.
This dish is the second item on the menu, a move specifically meant to encourage people to experience something new. “Right from the beginning, we’re going to challenge you,” Sasso says. They’re using, “familiar and unfamiliar ingredients with whimsical preparations.”
“Whimsical” is a far cry from the reputation that La Sirena earned since it opened last February. Although the Michelin guide awarded it a star, Eater critic Ryan Sutton called La Sirena “boring,” particularly for a group known for its invention and ambition. At the Times, Pete Wells found dishes to like but wrote that La Sirena “offers a little for everybody except, maybe, the person curious for fresh insights into Italian cuisine.”
Batali says that La Sirena’s size dictated the complexity of the food, in so much as the kitchen staff couldn’t focus on finer techniques due to the sheer number of people who could come into the restaurant. Between the bar, two dining rooms, and an expansive patio, close to 300 people could be dining on a busy summer day.
Thinner cuts of fish were favored over thicker ones that require careful temperature monitoring. Braising was favored over trickier methods that need a more vigilant eye. “We’re above all pragmatists,” Batali says. “We’re artists and pragmatists. We can’t put things on the menu that you can’t do right. If you’re going to do 1,000 covers, you gotta make food that you can do for 1,000 covers.”
The changes start with Tapas Bar. Though La Sirena’s not getting any smaller, bringing on Sasso to manage the kitchen for the bar area frees up time for Laurano and the staff cooking for the dining rooms.
For Sasso, who’s worked at the tiny Casa Mono for 12 years, it is a welcome opportunity to oversee a big new project, he says. He and Casa Mono partner/chef Andy Nusser looked for new spaces to open a Carbone-style, theatric Spanish large-plate restaurant after the Times awarded them three stars in 2015, but nothing worked out. Even though he’s still working with tapas here, it’s a different beast of a restaurant. Tapas Bar is about three times bigger than Casa Mono. “Here, the tempo is much different,” says Sasso.
Details are in flux as to when diners will see the transformation of La Sirena. Batali only promises that the next phase will be more exacting, more Spanish, and more adventurous. “We’ll have more time to make more precise food, things that are a little trickier, things that might have a crisper skin,” he says. “We can make things exactly the way that we want to make them.”