Ken Mansfield spent his early career cooking in Hawaii, which sealed his love for the ocean. At Sirena, where Mansfield is co-owner and chef, big windows offer a breathtaking view of the Atlantic, and the two-tiered dining room creates a ship-like atmosphere. The floor-to-ceiling curtains, half white, half black, echo the waterlines on pilings that support the outdoor deck. The attention to detail makes the pastel cushions in the bar booths feel like a nod to the traditional palette of the shore rather than a lapse in taste. Sirena both embraces its environment and tries to rise above it.
The menu is vast. “I wanted to have something for everyone,” Mansfield says. “Classical Italian, but taken up a notch.”
There are excellent dishes in almost every category (antipasti, primi, panini, pizzette, pesce, paste…the list goes on). But as you delve deeper you sense the strain of overextension.
A meaty, moist, crabcake starter, lightly breaded and perfectly seared, was served with an excellent Sambuca and roasted pepper crema. This innovative use of Italian ingredients adds a sophisticated touch to a staple of Shore dining and showcases Mansfield’s training at the Scalini Fedeli restaurants, where (post-Hawaii) he spent several years cooking for Joseph and Michael Cetrulo, now co-owners of Sirena.
An arugula salad with excellent bresaola (air-dried, thin-sliced beef) and grana padano (like parmesan, only sweeter) would have been fine if the kitchen had stopped there. But capers made it too salty and fava beans added little flavor. A tuna Milanese special was over-breaded, over-cooked, and overwhelmed by a cacophony of capers, Kalamata olives, grape tomatoes, a balsamic reduction, and a basil aioli.
A broccoli rabe side dish was prepared exactly as my Italian grandfather likes it: sautéed in plenty of oil with pepper flakes to offset the bitterness of the greens. Other contorni (side dishes) were less successful. Parmesan-dusted fingerling potatoes had an oily aftertaste that brought to mind bad potato chips.
The pastas are sized (and priced) as entrees—half-portions forbidden. Crispy pancetta sprinkled on perciatelli amatriciana contrasted nicely with the thick spaghetti, but sweet onion, sharp pecorino, and chilies knocked the dish out of kilter. Porcini ravioli in a truffle crema was too heavy, but the pappardelle Bolognese exhibited precision and restraint. There was just enough of the rich, flavorful ragù to coat the semolina pasta, with an indulgent dollop of mascarpone cheese on top.
Main courses sag under the weight of their accoutrements. Filet mignon was cooked medium when ordered medium-rare, and slathered in a gorgonzola sauce that made it difficult to taste the delicate filet. Tough, over-cooked monkfish medallions were wrapped in (or strangled by) too salty prosciutto. Better to stick with the simple bistecca Fiorentina, which is perfectly grilled and relatively unadorned.
Sirena’s unusual wine list is divided by price with reds and whites listed separately in $10 increments. It seems tacky at first glance, but as Mansfield points out, “Most people know what they want to spend before they sit down.” There are some standout values. A crisp, dry Prosecco and a full-bodied Primitivo are both excellent and priced under $40.
For dessert, there was an excellent apple tart, but panna cotta was blitzed by a syrupy blueberry marmalade. My advice is K.I.S.S, or Keep It Simple, Sirena.—Stan Parish
27 Ocean Avenue, Long Branch (732-222-1119) sirenaristorante.com. Lunch: Monday through Friday, noon to 3 pm. Dinner: Monday through Friday, 4 to 10 pm; Saturday, 4 to midnight; Sunday, 1 to 9 pm. All major credit cards are accepted. Wheelchair access easy.Click here to leave a comment