The newly opened Sirena Cocina Latina restaurant offers a true gourmet Latin Cuisine inspired menu, with many dishes having roots in the food culture of South America.
Located on the corner of Columbia and Fir Streets in San Diego’s Little Italy, the new Sirena restaurant boasts a neutral color palette accented with wooden walls and dark tables, making it the perfect spot for a romantic date or upscale business dinner.
The philosophy behind the menu at Sirena is to showcase fresh ingredients with simple flavors. “We wanted to bring San Diego a unique and unmatched culinary experience with a one-of-a-kind menu,” says Executive Chef Jaime Chavez.
Sirena stands out from other restaurants in the area by a few trademarks. First, Sirena is the only true Latin American-inspired restaurant, with many dishes having roots in the food culture of South America, while taking on a new life with modern and inventive preparations. Secondly, the caliber of their fresh, seasonal and sustainable ingredients is unmatched. “We do everything we can to feature only locally or regionally-caught seafood and in-season produce,” Chavez says. “We even grow some of the produce ourselves. The menu is creative and complex, while still allowing simple ingredients to shine through.”
Sirena utilizes a unique combination of ingredients for a distinct flavor and appearance. For example, their purple cauliflower is delicately pickled and prepared with oysters and a a fresh coconut-ginger sauce is paired with braised scallops. Additionally, even though Sirena is a seafood restaurant, they also cater to vegetarian and vegan diners. Chavez explains that several members of his kitchen team are not-meat eaters, so much time has been devoted to developing techniques to replicate some of their favorite dishes into vegan-approved options, including cauliflower that tastes like ceviche or mushrooms that imitate raw oysters. “Food can be very creative, which is our inspiration in the Sirena kitchen.”
A majority of the ingredients on the menu at Sirena are not only fresh, but sustainable. Born in Puerto Montt, one of the main cities in the south of Chile, Chavez liked to go to his grandfather’s house in a little fishermen’s city called Maullín, where they had a farm. At a very young age, he learned about fish and seafood. “I was able to open clams before reading,” he says. Chavez also says his first approach with cooking was during the holiday season. “It is common in my family to slow roast a half lamb with a chimichurri lacquer. So, while it was very annoying for adults to rotate the lamb for four hours, it was a very attractive job for a little kid.”
In the south of Chile, Chavez explains that there was a significant German influence, thus his family developed German pastry traditions. “I think cooking and baking is in my blood,” he says. “To be honest, while growing up, I never thought I wanted to cook for a living, but at some point what was in my blood was stronger than my own wishes.”
Chavez attended Inacap, in Santiago de Chile, the oldest culinary school in Chile. He started in 2004, studying in the daytime, and working in different places at night. From fast food to taco shops, Asian eateries to sushi restaurants, he’s worked all of them, gaining invaluable skills, techniques and experience.
In October 2006, Chavez moved for an internship to Peralada a little village in Alt Empurdá Barcelona in a little boutique hotel. He learned there the importance of respecting the ingredients. During his internship, he spent a couple of weeks at El Cingle, a Michelin star restaurant. It was there he received his training in contemporary Catalan cuisine with Montse Estruch; a revolutionary in the field.
Eventually, Chavez headed back to Chile to finish school. Looking for new experiences he moved to a restaurant called Emilio, the best Peruvian fine dining restaurant in Santiago. He started there as line cook and in less than three months, he was promoted to sous chef. He stayed there for a couple of months, until he received an offer to open a Peruvian restaurant in his home city. “It was a beautiful and hard experience, but it was there that I realized that I really loved this life,” he says.
One day, Chavez was in his office and received a call offering him a pastry position at El Cingle, the Michelin star restaurant he had trained at. It was an opportunity he could not turn down, pastry or not. When he arrived at the restaurant, he was informed that there was actually no chef de cuisine at the restaurant, so he jumped from pastry to chef de cuisine in a couple of minutes!
Chavez explains that managing a Michelin star-awarded restaurant was very different than managing other any of the other restaurants he had worked for at that time. At El Cingle, there was no space for mistakes and the place was very demanding. We worked eighteen hours a day, almost every day. “There are so many details to take care of, that you can’t even imagine,” he says. “I had so much to read about, invested several hours in research, practiced my plating skills, and developed a creative process for making new dishes. That place made me who I am now.”
Eventually, Chavez left Spain to follow his wife to Tijuana, Mexico. There he was an instructor at a cooking school, teaching students how to experience food and cooking. From Tijuana, Chavez and his wife came to San Diego, where they have worked in several hotels and restaurants in the city, finally bringing him me to Sirena as the new Executive Chef. “Now, I wish to provide a way for anyone to enjoy and experience those possibilities through my culinary creations,” he says.
The menu at Sirena is inspired by Chavez’s background and by the food culture of South America. Many of the dishes are inspired by things his mother would make, but with a special spin. “I love simple, clean flavors with a complex preparation,” he says. “But, there are also other menu items that play up the quality of seafood we are able to get here in San Diego. Nekkei, our take on a “sushi-style” dish, spotlights how fresh and flavorful our seafood is, even when served raw.”
One of Chavez’s favorite dishes on the menu is the Peruvian Ceviche where the flavors are very fresh and clean with a hint of spice. The fresh oysters are also a favorite, offering a unique presentation, served with pickled vegetables and toasted squid-inked black bread. As a main dish, the braised scallops set atop a fresh coconut-ginger sauce, mirasol chili oil and a cauliflower puree is absolute perfection. “I love every dish we have on the menu,” says Chavez. “When I started, I was convinced about the flavors but I had to test the textures. I especially love the scallops because it’s a simple dish and the flavors are amazing. There are so many textures, that every bite is a difference experience.”