Seasoned chef John Critchley is fine-tuning seafood tower-serving Siren in order to lure in both high-end diners and cost-conscious fun seekers.
The two-pronged effort is part of his strategy to broaden the appeal of the Scott Circle restaurant award-winning restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier planted inside the Darcy hotel last spring. Critchley aims to capitalize on the warmer weather on the way by unveiling a revamped patio outfitted with couches and ottomans. The outdoor area will boast a more intimate setting for 35 people — down from 45 — looking to sip cocktails and share snacks rather than dive into entrees.
“We want people to be able to dine there but I think it would be better suited as a comfortable place where people can come in and have a few drinks, maybe have half-price oysters for happy hour, perhaps get a salmon burger with some croquettes ... [rather] than trying to push people into a multi-course menu in the dining room,” Critchley says. He hopes the new patio will be ready “very, very soon.” Those who choose to dine inside will have more options as well: Critchley is close to finalizing a nightly tasting menu that will allow him to showcase even more fresh seafood.
Eater recently caught up with Critchley to discuss his vision for the “chef’s whim” menu, why Siren staff now pours sauces tableside, and the women’s undergarment required to catch one of his favorite offerings.
How has business been going for you in the first year?
John Critchley: I feel it’s been a very successful first year. Go a block and a half and you have a row of restaurants on 14th Street. But we don’t have neighboring restaurants, so we are a little tucked away. But it let us hone in on our skills, grow the concept, try things with our regular guests that we may not have tried or had the time to try.
Do you predict an expansion?
JC: We’re doing a lot of tasting menus for Champagne dinners and wine dinners; the goal this year is to definitely have a multi-course chef’s whim tasting available. We’ve done it for a lot of our guests that just say, “I just want the chef to cook for me.” But I want to make something a little more concrete, something that people can expect versus “OK, what would you like five courses, seven courses, nine, 10? How much do you want to spend?” I’d like to structure it this year and say, “OK, my team and I will cook for you starting at $75 for eight courses.” Some might be little bites, some might be more substantial.
So the chef’s whim menu is still under development?
JC: Right now we take some of our great dishes and we’ll make them smaller. We might get one or two pounds of a certain fish or something in and do a few bites of that. I think with having a chef’s whim on our current menu we’ll be able to get that call from the fish guy who says, “I have one of these” and instead of reprinting a menu for one night just to sell that fish, I can put it on a tasting menu. Having those outlets would be really helpful. We want it to be seasonal, we want it to be intriguing.
When can people expect this?
JC: Now we offer a chef’s whim Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays generally. Not too many Friday and Saturday nights because I don’t want it to come off wrong on our busiest nights, so we’re really trying to perfect this a little bit three nights a week. I’d say over the next month or two we would see it go full-time because it’s not much more difficult to do, it’s just something different.
Do you have any other expansion plans in the works?
JC: We’re working on the outdoor patio being a lounge-y area more than it is a dining area. It is open and currently we are purchasing the furniture. We’re trying to adjust the landscape to make it more enclosed and make you feel more secluded.
What can you tell us about the menu?
JC: It will be a lighter-fare menu which is what we’re currently doing at our bar which has the salmon burger, it has a smoked and braised short lamb shoulder, it has the croquettas. We have a beautiful Key West pink shrimp marinades, little canapés, little bites of seafood ideally priced below $15. Our goal is to have everyone who enjoys seafood come in and have something fun, but without turning the whole dining room into something for everyone. We want people to feel relaxed, and calm and to enjoy a great meal.
What’s the most popular food on the menu?
JC: Halibut and black cod are really popular when it comes to our warm seafood dishes. Bay scallops have always been popular. I can’t tell if it’s just because it’s a bay scallop or because it’s paired with black truffles. And then our big eye tuna from our raw bar is really great, our hamachi or yellowtail. The yellowtail gets a scuppernong ponzu ... [made with] white grape juice, ginger citrus, and soy; that adds a little unique sweetness to that hamachi. And then the tuna has avocado mousse, Macadamia nut, sesame and calamansi lime.
What are some of your personal favorites on the menu?
JC: When I work with seafood all day long I like to have the duck. It’s one of my preferred red meats to eat. I do love our fisherman’s stew. I think it has a great balance and has a variety of seafood in it. From the raw bar I love our Japanese sea urchin. It comes over blue crab custard.
What are you most proud of on your menu?
JC: I love our plateaus. Our grand one feeds a lot of people for one, but it also has a whole 3.5-pound lobster on it, it has a dozen oysters, a dozen clams, tiger, skull island prawns and then the top piece I created like a sashimi platter on top. So it’s all fresh, all of our thin fish in the building that we slice beautifully and then we garnish with different sauces and pickles.
What adjustments did you make to the menu?
JC: Our fisherman’s stew went through I think four different changes within the first couple months because we were just trying to find that great balance between the sweetness of the scallops, the shrimp and the lobster texture, and the dumpling, and so those went through tweaks. And as we gained feedback, the one resounding thing was we need to get it hotter. And so the plates are as hot as they can possibly be without cracking, the food is absolutely freshly cooked and then when it goes out, that simmering broth is brought out in a little teapot to pour it tableside so that there’s no chill. Because nothing beats having that nice warm bowl of seafood.
So what’s fun to get in from your suppliers?
JC: We got percebes, basically a goose neck barnacle from Galicia in Spain. We’re still waiting for the glass eels to come in this spring, but I haven’t seen a lot of people going out after them in a few years. You find them in Europe but also up in New England and they literally catch them with pantyhose — that’s how small they are. They’re so small they swim through most nets.
Tell us what you’ve got planned for the spring and summer menus
JC: Some of the fish, as I said the Coho salmons from the Pacific northwest, the Alaskan halibut season those will be going on the menu. You’ll see the end of the end of Dover sole season; there’s a beautiful farm-raised Spanish sole that’s a really good alternative and it’s readily available, so we’ll probably see that take its place as the whole fish. Come July, you’ll be getting a lot of fresh head-on-shrimp from the Carolinas.
The pastry chef is now making beautiful chocolates that you get with your check. They have fun unique flavors on the inside; she even has one mold that makes them look like seashells. So It’s pretty fun, and it’s a nice touch at the end of your meal.
With the first year out of the way, what will you focus on next?
JC: Year one for me it’s always about building a foundation ... building a memory of how the restaurant runs regardless of who’s running it. You need to build that memory … so when something’s not in its right place, it stands out like a sore thumb. Year two is about identifying the key positions in your kitchen that you need to hone in on and become the leader ... so that the managers can focus on what’s next. The more innovative process of that comes in year two. That’s when you’ll start seeing the menu changing quicker, more testing, probably more failures. But that’s the exciting part of year two.
This interview has been edited and condensed.