April 4, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Waking Up to La Sirena

My favorite breakfast: pastries. “Five of our best,” La Sirena’s colazione menu promises. 
My favorite breakfast: pastries. “Five of our best,” La Sirena’s colazione menu promises.

          I needed to claim a table at La Sirena the week it opened. I’m not saying small isn’t good. An emerald is an emerald. But big is more compelling. I could see La Sirena would be huge, not just because Batali and Bastianich are involved. By spring, both dining rooms would be open and the terrace would be paved with tables, the kitchen in gear to feed 450 or more at one time. Big. Scary big.

What’s up there, above Tao Downtown? Climb the steel staircase and discover La Sirena. 

          Maddeningly, La Sirena was already fully booked except at 5:30 or 9:30 pm days before it opened. I found a cell phone number for Joe Bastianich and reached him somewhere in Italy -- on an “extended vacation.”

At dinnertime, the long white bar in the arrival area is reserved for drinkers. But there is a scattering of tables. 

          I came three times for dinner, urging different pals to pass their antipasti around the table, then to share bucatini and cavatelli or garganelli with capon ragu, followed by duck and beef braciole, before we succumbed to the torta della nonna. Yes, in spite of the painful din radiating off glass walls, I would return.

With the perfection of the Italian breakfast performance, French preserves surprise. I’m sure that will change.

          But what I craved was breakfast. Of course, there would be breakfast. It’s a hotel. The day I read Mario Batali riffing on breakfast, I began obsessing about frittatas and eggs in purgatory (spicy tomato sauce).  I eat dinner out six nights a week for better or worse. To compensate for macaroni-and-cheese and pork belly abandon, my breakfast is dutifully uptight: non-fat yogurt, sugar-free kibbles and bits with berries and a few segments of tangerine for vitamin C. 

It was the lure of duck egg polenta that led me, half-asleep, to ride 56 blocks south for La Sirena’s breakfast.

          I was excited to have a reason to break my regimen. Not that it was simple. It was not like I could roll out of bed with my eyes still closed while Mario steamed my espresso. I would have to journey 56 blocks south of my port, fully dressed with shoes on, for the chef’s amaretti mascarpone pancakes.

After I check in, I like to walk by the ceramic Sirena surrounded by flowers at the bar.

          My friend Barry, his own portage just a few blocks west, is keen to join me. We meet in the vast bar entry, its 38 feet of Caesarstone deserted at 9:30 am -- and surprisingly few tables devoted to breakfast.  I wonder why the reservationist refused to let me book 9:45 and insisted we come precisely 15 minutes earlier. Pretending even morning sells out, perhaps. 

My friend chooses a green, alcohol-free cocktail. I’m high on fresh-squeezed blood orange.

          Barry persuades the waitress to move us from a two-top overlooking Ninth Avenue to a corner banquette. I give him the drill. We must order for research, not for a sane breakfast. He chooses the Gardener, a $10 nonalcoholic spritz of cucumber, mint and ginger beer to start. My freshly-squeezed blood orange fills a ten-ounce glass. I feel young and rich and not far from the beach. I’ve almost forgotten how exhilarating fresh-squeezed can be.

The adjoining table holds our breakfast – pesto focaccia, extra thick rye toast, pastry basket, crisp Mortadella.

          The menu opens with a quote from Homer: “No poem was ever written by a drinker of water.” I suspect Homer never tasted just-squeezed blood orange. Barry and I debate the colazione options. “Forget about oatmeal or granola,” I command.

The house was out of 18-month riserva prosciutto with robiolina, so I chose the focaccia Genovese instead.

          “We’ll have 18-month Riserva Galloni prosciutto with grilled bread and robiolina,” I tell the waitress. “That’s what Mario fancies for his own breakfast.”  I’d done my homework. 

          Alas, it’s not available, she says sadly. I imagine Mario sneaking the last of the ham for a midnight snack. As consolation, I choose focaccia Genovese -- “fluffy bread & a schmear of pesto,” the menu notes -- over Sardinian-style semolina fritters filled with ewe’s milk cheese.

The Mulberry omelette looks prim, but it’s perfect – rolled around Chinese sausage, mozzarella and provolone.

          Nothing’s wrong with the pesto bruschetta – well, maybe it would be better for lunch. But I’m instantly distracted by the mixed pastry basket –“Five Pieces of our Best,” promises the menu. Yes. Yes. Yes. Muffins, an Italian donut, puff pastry -- each one is different, which means I have to taste every one. With the house’s special butter in a doll’s house dish alongside. Yes, that too.

          I let Barry have a say in our Uova choice. It’s the Mulberry Street Omelette over Nonna’s fried eggs with bottarga and fresh ricotta.  Even with the crispy Chinese sausage, mozzarella, provolone and basil filling, Barry dismisses it as “just an omelette.” But I find it unusual, maybe not “baveuse” as I instruct the waitress who probably doesn’t have a clue what that means – moist, juicy, a bit runny -- but it’s definitely not overcooked

I hope Barry uses the leftover mortadella chuns for his own Mulberry omelette the next morning.

          The ultimate decadence that has haunted me in Mario’s streaming of coming attractions -- the duck egg on polenta with almond pesto -- comes sunny side up, but I’m not sure why it’s hidden under so much greenery. A very generous bowl of crispy mortadella squares is just $6.

I order espresso, and then I smile. It looks like a vintage jewel with whipped cream and a chocolate coffee bean.

          The leftover pastries are already packed up for Barry to take home, but we take out the crumbed apple muffin for a shared dessert as I drink my espresso. It’s served like a precious jewel at breakfast or dinner -- thick espresso foam in a small cup alongside a liquor glass of whipped cream embedded with one chocolate coffee bean.

Waiters were paid and trained for three months during opening delays. Here’s the dining room service area.

          It’s probably just as well that the siren call of breakfast is so far from my pad. I wouldn’t want duck egg polenta to become a habit. But I’ll be back for dinner. I suspect most of my friends will like the place. It’s not defiant like Babbo, or exaggeratedly grand like Del Posto or a noisy Roman reverie like Lupa.

Without warning, here is Mario in his familiar dress, kneeling at my side. “I was born to do this,” he says.

          Batali, swooping in to whisper into your ear or to welcome Salman Rushdie, is still in his shorts with orange crocs, but he has created a very grown-up restaurant. There are crumbed, baked clams or marinated, roasted mushrooms with soft cheese and preserved lemon for the cautious.

I recommend the fresh anchovies with fennel three ways and the frisée insalata with pepperoni and potatoes.

Lush short rib carpaccio with turnips and optional grated black truffle was the winter option of this dish.

          The more adventurous will want anchovies marinated in-house and served with fennel three ways or bright short rib carpaccio with turnips. Cubes of warm pepperoni and potato add excitement to a fine toss of frisée with a poached egg in the salata category.

Four of us shared three pastas, including this garganelli with capon ragu – then, we divided two secondi.

          The house offers two pastas for $24 a person, if everyone at the table agrees.  One evening the four of us want three pastas – pici with sausage and eggplant, semolina cavatelli with spare ribs and bucatini with spicy octopus. We have them set in the middle of the table so each of us can decide how much to eat. The bucatini is the biggest hit.

Chanterelles come alongside lemony braised and roasted chicken in a modest bid to be more than a mere bird.

I won’t forget the swordfish that first dinner: exquisitely cooked and wondrously fresh.

          Another evening, we share panzotti pockets stuffed with leek and mascarpone, swirls of spinach and walnuts on the plate, followed by braised and roasted chicken with semolina gnocco and chanterelles touched with lemon.

          Twice, I find sautéed duck breast tough and chewy, though everybody enjoys the burger-like crépinette of the leg meat. I only order the swordfish once, asking for it “not too cooked” and it’s wondrously sublime, fresh and glowing in its perfection.

Just meatballs, you might think, but the sweet and sour pork polpette are large, soft and full of flavor. 

          Another night, a friend wants the lardo-crusted steak, but as it’s only offered for two, she switches to the sweet and sour pork meatballs -- amazing large globes, surprisingly soft and delicious. After sharing two pastas, one is all she could eat. Her husband and I chivalrously finish off the rest.

It would be a mistake to bypass desserts here, especially the honey walnut semifreddo.

          Often on these reviewing excursions, everyday humans decline dessert. But they usually surrender when I suggest just one to share. With pastry star Michael Laiskonis in charge, La Sirena’s dolci deserve more attention. The semifreddo layers blood orange sorbetto and frozen honey mousse draped in meringue.

As might be expected, pastry star Michael Laiskonis does a tempting cookie collection.

          Roasted pineapple jam and vanilla ice cream are served alongside bombolini, Italian-style doughnuts, ready for wanton dipping. And the baba is soaked with citrus and Campari, then topped with fruit and basil gelato.  I don’t come across candied chestnut often these days, but here it is with a cocoa sable cookie, black currant and whipped cream

A need for chocolate will be served by chocolate pizzelle crisps, chocolate gelato and chocolate caramel.

          Serious chocolate lovers might insist on the crisp chocolate pizzelle with chocolate gelato, chocolate caramel, and apricot jam. But my favorite is the classic pine nut tart with cider raisins, Grandmother-style. It comes with olive oil gelato and sits on a plate streaked with red wine caramel.

I’ll take Nonna’s pine nut torta, Grandmother style with cider raisins, red wine caramel and olive oil gelato.

          We’ll see how disciplined the house can be when the ceilings of the glass-wrapped dining rooms retract and the verandah is lined with al fresco diners. I’m going to suppose that, thriving now on the challenge of multiple Eatalys, the Batali-Bastianich enterprise will not crash on the rocks of La Sirena. 

This is the tile that welcomes you into the soaring entry-bar. It looks even better by daylight.

88 Ninth Avenue 212 977 6096. Breakfast Monday through Friday 7 to 11 am. Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 am to 3:30 pm.  Dinner Monday through Wednesday 5 to 11 pm. Thursday through Saturday 5 pm to midnight. Sunday 5 to 10 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 7 am to 3:30 pm.


Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

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