La Sirena Clandestina recalls the sneak-away beachside joints of Rio de Janiero that inspire its name ‘hidden mermaid.’ Chef John Manion serves Latin-local fare with distinctly Brazilian influences that draw on his childhood in Brazil as well as two decades cooking in Chicago.
John Manion, Executive Chef/Owner
It all began when John Manion moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, when he was 8 years old. With his family he spent the following 5 years soaking in the culture and, most importantly, the food of a place very far from home. While Manion always felt more at home in restaurant kitchens, he went on to study English and political science and took a job in public relations after college. After a short time, he opted to purse his love of cooking, and moved to Chicago to attend Kendall College. Recalling the beachside joints of Brazil, Manion, a 20-year veteran of the local restaurant scene, opened La Sirena Clandestina in 2012. He continued his culinary journey in 2016 with El Che Steakhouse & Bar, a love letter to his travels in Argentina interpreted through the Buenos Aires tradition of live-flame cooking. Manion’s passion for South American flavors animates the spirited dishes and sultry ambiance of both his restaurants. El Che has earned a three-star rating from the Chicago Tribune. In 2017, Manion was nominated for “Chef of the Year” at the Jean Banchet Awards and was recognized as a “Master of the Flame” by Chicago Tribune’s Phil Vettel in the “Critic’s Choice Dining Awards.”
Daniel Boyd, Partner/Owner
Not everyone can say the 2008 economic downturn had a positive impact on their career. But for Daniel Boyd, who has a background in real estate construction, design and finance, the recession and a serendipitously timed friendship with chef John Manion prompted him to pursue a longtime goal of opening a restaurant. Boyd led the design and construction, while Manion oversaw the culinary concept and creative direction, and conceptualization became reality with La Sirena Clandestina, a Brazilian-inspired restaurant that opened in 2012. With the success of their first restaurant, Manion and Boyd, who is also the founder/principal at Mercurius Design-Development, a real estate firm focused on the acquisition, design and development of commercial properties focusing on the arts and hospitality, began looking for a second concept. In late 2014, a fortuitous turn of events led to taking possession of a West Loop space ripe with history and character. El Che Steakhouse & Bar opened in the summer of 2016 and earned a number of stellar reviews and nods for local and national “best new” lists. Boyd is also partner in Funkenhausen, a German-meets-American South restaurant in West Town, which opened in August 2018.
Jack Mercola, General Manager/Wine Director
When you work in a small restaurant, odds are you’ll wear many hats—and that’s exactly how Jack Mercola likes it. While his official titles are General Manager and Wine Director, his responsibilities at the restaurant entail much more. Growing up in Deerfield, Ill., food and the bonds formed around the table played a central role in Mercola’s predominantly Italian family. His professional introduction to the hospitality industry came while attending Duke University in Durham, NC, where he worked at a local coffeehouse. In 2013 Mercola moved back to Chicago and joined the staff at Alinea, where he took on a variety of front-of-the-house responsibilities. In January 2017, he joined the staff at La Sirena Clandestina, initially as a server and bartender. It didn’t take long though for Mercola to advance to General Manager and Wine Director positions at the Brazilian-inspired restaurant. As GM, Mercola focuses on “identifying what guests need, providing it and ensuring they leave happy.” When it comes to La Sirena’s wine list, Mercola strives to include a variety of price points, varietals and regions, as well as wines that can provide an opportunity to educate the restaurant’s staff and its guests.
Andre Ansari, Beverage Director
It has all the makings of a classic Hollywood story. After diligently working as a bar-back for 5 years, Andre Ansari got his big break when a bartender called off at the last minute. While his first official shift behind the bar at Publican Anker might have been a little rough, Ansari didn’t let the opportunity go to waste (and neither did his bosses) and he began bartending from then on. Beyond his extensive bar-back experience at Big Star, Kuma’s Corner and Anker, Ansari also had a secret weapon: an Associates in Culinary Arts degree from the Art Institute of Illinois. His knowledge of flavor profiles, balancing ingredients and culinary techniques often come into play when he’s creating cocktails. While he originally thought a culinary career was in his future—with a Mexican mother and Persian father, Ansari was exposed at a young age to a spectrum of flavors—Ansari found the immediate sense of creativity and fast pace of mixology suited him better. In February 2017, he joined the team at La Sirena as a bartender and in April 2018 became beverage director. At the West Loop restaurant, Ansari oversees beverage inventory, training and cocktail creating.
Maureen Neer, Chef de Cuisine
From a young age, Maureen Neer had an interest in cooking. Growing up in rural Ohio with grandmothers who had gardens and considered canning part of their routine initiated Neer’s curiosity in food. Her Saturday afternoon practice of diligently watching PBS cooking shows—a little Rick Bayless here, some Lidia Bastianich there—furthered her interest. While in college Neer worked in restaurants, but it was only after she graduated with a degree in Interior Architecture that she acknowledged her passion was in the kitchen and not in an office. In 2013, she moved to Chicago and her professional culinary career took off, first at the Fifty/50 Group’s Homestead on the Roof as a line cook, followed by a sous chef position at Steadfast. A subsequent stint at Royal Grocer was short lived, but Neer ended up working with the same executive chef at The Kennison in the Hotel Lincoln as executive sous chef. In her position as chef de cuisine at the West Loop’s La Sirena Clandestina, Neer is excited to work with Founder/Executive Chef John Manion and explore his passion and knowledge of Brazil, a country close to his heart. “Food is a lens you can view history through,” says Neer. “By trying to understand how people from West Africa, Portugal, Lebanon and a myriad of other cultures who call Brazil home have changed and evolved the country’s cuisine and the histories that come with each dish, that’s compelling stuff to work with.”