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Reviews of brunch dishes.

The Brunch Dish: Eccentric Ethnic Eats at La Sirena Clandestina

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[Photographs: Chelsea Ross]

Brunch at La Sirena Clandestina is so novel and eclectic it should almost require passport verification. Brimming with sultry sauces, international ingredients, exotic menu names, and a touch of whimsy, it's the perfect balance of serious cooking and adventure, and the results are one of the most unique brunch programs currently in Chicago.

Since opening his South American enclave, John Manion has proven his knack for infusing traditionally inspired Brazilian fare with a tasteful dash of eccentricity on his dinner menu. That same enthusiasm parlays to brunch with items such as the breakfast empanada ($4 plus $2 with a fried egg). Basically, it's a gourmet Hot Pocket, filled with bacon, sage, and cheddar. All empanadas at La Sirena are baked, ensuring each one is delicate, flaky, and as light as a bundle of dough can possibly be. They're about the size of a small fist, so they're not too filling either, leaving plenty of room for further menu navigation.

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For a pancake that will completely change your perception of pancakes, try the okonomiyaki ($12), a Japanese pancake worlds away from the stuff peddled in heaping stacks throughout America. This savory pancake is egg-based, with a texture and flavor more akin to a souffl├ęd frittata. It's a solitary pancake studded with green onions and bean sprouts, liberally spritzed with kewpie mayo, an unctuous umami bomb reminiscent of soy sauce. It's a salty affair, but just like a bag of chips, it's hard to stop eating.

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La Sirena also offers a Latin-inspired riff on shrimp and grits with its shrimp baiano ($16). All the requisite players are on deck, albeit reinterpreted and re-flavored in bold new ways. Hulking head-on shrimp take center stage, spiced with habanero and perfectly plump and succulent. Dredge the shrimp through some excess habanero sauce and pretend you're eating the most kickass shrimp cocktail ever. They're served over a bed of polenta, though bed may be too soft a word, considering it's a solid polenta cake more similar to a cot. By serving the polenta in cake form, and searing it gently to create a thin crust, it lends more body to the dish. It also makes it easier to spear composed bites on your fork. The polenta itself, once you slice into it, is luscious and velvety, like a savory corn panna cotta. The plate is finished with some fresh cilantro and cashews, adding some crunch to the party and freshening you're over-spiced mouth.

Whatever time of day he's cooking, John Manion is always full of bold twists and turns. His enigmatic spirit and talent lends itself so well to brunch, a meal that is often overlooked as predictable and stale, resulting in one of the most exhilarating brunch experiences this city has seen.

La Sirena Clandestina

954 West Fulton Market, Chicago IL 60607 (map)
312-226-5300
http://lasirenachicago.com/

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