[Free Stuff by Wilfrid: September 7, 2015]
Sirens, those dangerous creatures of myth, luring sailors to their doom on the rocks. In the case of this particular siren, luring customers from the Holland Tunnel-bound clatter of the west SoHo streets to a traditional and reliable French bistro experience.
The call of La Sirène was piercingly heard back in 2008, when Frank Bruni published a glowing one star review (people forget that one star reviews can be good): "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."
And it was scrappy back then. One small room, BYO only. Times have changed. The restaurant has stretched into the next door space, and is notably spruce and modern (no bistro kitsch here). There's a wine list (they do serve liquor, but not cocktails), although you can still bring a bottle (one bottle) for a very reasonable $10 corkage fee.
I accepted an invitation to dine as a guest of the restaurant. I've honestly not been in living memory, although I've used owner Didier Pawlicki's East Village outpost, Le Village--a good choice if you're entertaining a vegetarian or vegan guest.
Yes, Didier is still hyperactively all over La Sirène's dining room and kitchen, defining the concept of a hands-on chef/proprietor. At this original--opened he told me because doing business in Paris is a bureaucracy-riddled--the emphasis is very much on meat rather than veggies. The signature, after all, is cassoulet: but August in New York isn't really cassoulet weather.
Even so, I was in the mood for something hearty to start proceedings, so despite glowing recommendations for the escargots, I asked for the tartelette de chèvre. I would have picked the tiny Comté-stuffed ravioli with cream and truffle oil, but I know I like those because I've eaten them (and reviewed them) at Le Village.
This is not the place to come for fussy plating, as you can see, but the goat cheese, "veiled" with aged Gruyère and accented with raisins was hugely comforting. And I did borrow a snail from someone else's plate.
As I said, mains lean meaty here (although there's a whole section of the menu devoted to preparations of moules). There's a fish of the day, but attention is grabbed by duck, rabbit, steak, lamb, pork, the cassoulet--indeed, you can choose from a duck confit and a roast magret. I did snag some lamb, which was precisely medium-rare.
But why not take the opportunity to try a dish from another age: Tournedos Rossini? You know you're dealing with a true ancien régime survivor when a dishes provenance is contested by Carême, Dugléré, and Escoffier: according to Wikipedia, anyway.
Traditionally, it's a slice of filet mignon, supported by a crouton, topped with foie gras--an idea some creit to Rossini himself--and finished with a Madeira sauce and black truffles. Yes, it's rich. One doesn't, honestly, expect slices of black truffles and aged Madeira, even at $34.75: here the truffle element is worked into the red wine reduction.
But the knockout--and the dish is dark, and doesn't photograph well, but take a close look--is the thick puck of fresh foie gras capping the steak. "Not pâté," cried chef Didier, and quite right. This is from the lobe, quite delicious, and worth the entry price by itself.
Vegetables were plated for the table, and I'd mention a smooth purée of carrots, doubtless helped out with butter, as sweet and appealing as candied yam.
Truthfully, dessert was not a major concern after I'd put myself outside the cheese tart, the steak, and the foie. In fact I had to be dissuaded from ordering Dr Davidson's (see menu above) adored îles flottant, just from the description. In the end, I just gave up and watched my several dining companions (all women, if it matters) stow away vast quantities of profiteroles and choux Chantilly, which is simply profiteroles without the chocolate sauce. There is something entertaining in watching smart, intelligent women get cream and chocolate all over their faces. I did like the crème brûlée.
The Pawlicki empire, not forgetting adjacent fondue specialist Taureau, has reached the point in history where eccentricities (cash or Amex, for example) become tradition, and novelty becomes enduring charm. And if Didier truly finds it easier to do business in New York than Paris (a thought which would leave some local chefs open-mouthed), then he and his restaurants are surely here to stay.
More information at the website.