All too often, restaurants that claim to serve Kobe beef are party to one of the most pervasive fictions perpetrated in the industry. The menu at River North's Siena Tavern advertises a "Kobe meatball," and servers describe it that way too. The idea that this new River North circus might have actually been grinding the exorbitantly priced flesh, extending it with bread crumbs, and forming it into oversize meatballs—even $17 meatballs that are fluffy and light in their roasted tomato sauce blanket—was difficult to swallow. If it were true Kobe it would be a crime against bovinity.
But when I asked, chef David Blonksy affirmed that it is in fact the far more common (but still delectable) domestic Wagyu beef. You don't see Kobe on menus much anymore, so I'd assumed those who were tempted to play this game had realized a majority of sentient diners were aware of the ruse by now. It's one of the little details that immediately leaves a sour taste in the mouth when contemplating this partnership between the owners of the River North sports bars Bull & Bear and Public House and the LA-based celebrity chef Fabio Viviani, who was one of the more likably edited characters in the history of the cable channel game show Top Chef. But during my visits there were more unpleasant details to endure.
Siena Tavern is still in its honeymoon phase. Good luck getting a short-notice reservation before 9 PM, even on a Monday. This has a lot to do with Viviani's involvement, which included recipe development, but also schmoozing tables (when he's in town), giving interviews, and taking his partners on a field trip to Tuscany to shoot a promotional video. I wonder how deep it goes beyond that, given that the native-born Florentine allowed his name to go on a menu that misspells "prosciutto," "tortellacci," and, arguably, "soppressata." And what about a kitchen that prepares spaghetti carbonara—a dish that should contain nothing more than olive oil, guanciale, pasta, eggs, cheese, black pepper, and (maybe) onions—with an abundance of cream that thickens and glues the otherwise credible noodles together like a wet knot?
The crowds are now here in force, but I question how long Siena can continue to attract them in a neighborhood congested with similar Italian food factories including Bar Umbriago, RPM, Quartino, and Osteria Via Stato. If you were to generously stretch the boundaries of River North you could also include Bar Toma, which Siena Tavern most closely resembles, from a mozzarella-making operation to an open-kitchen pizza oven to a wall creepily adorned with empty picture frames.
One of Siena Tavern's mantras, repeated endlessly by servers, on its website, and in its marketing materials, is that everything that comes out of the kitchen is made from scratch. I don't doubt it, but the sheer volume of table turnover results in some particularly careless executions that obviate whatever care goes into the prep.
As with the carbonara, pastas in particular seem to suffer the most. The aforementioned butternut squash "tortellaci" arrived on one occasion wallowing in a tepid cream sauce glistening with droplets of unemulsified butter, while the interior of the noodles betrayed a line of raw white dough. The same was true with a plate of short-rib-filled ravioli that was squirted with streaks of runny Taleggio sauce and balsamic vinegar.
This dish, which also incorporated mushrooms and deep-fried sage leaves, is said to be an ancestral Viviani recipe, but it, like many overcomplicated American interpretations of Italian food—and like many on the menu here—contained twice as many ingredients as it needed.
You see this again with a one-animal-too-many approach to an appetizer of grilled octopus with potatoes cooked in duck fat, or with the intensely multiflavored gelati so oversweetened and saturated with fat they could frost a cake, or with a pizza burdened by three types of cured meats, including the nearly redundantly named "pancetta cured bacon." Why top your pie with quattro formaggi when you can top it with cinque?
Siena executes these pizzas, which have a competently charred but undistinguished crust, behind a bar that also serves fish crudo and house-made mozzarella, including a wet and spongy bufala resting in puddles of oily minced salami and olive tapenade. These are among large selections of antipasti, salads, pastas, meats, cheeses, sides, and large plates. I've said this so many times before that I can't think of any other way to say it: if you try to do too many different things, many of those different things won't be particularly good.
But the law of averages dictates that some things will in fact be good. Or at least not bad. I liked the little antipasti coccoli, fried dough pufflets arranged over truffle-honeyed sheets of prosciutto with a creamy lump of stracchino cheese. Or a supertender, dino-sized braised veal osso bucco with farro risotto, brightened by a brilliant green gremolata. There are a few solid salads, too, including nutty farro clumped with grilled shrimp and squid in a sharp mustard vinaigrette (like Grape-Nuts for dinner), and a simple, tender baby kale Caesar that I wanted to eat above and beyond all that came before and after. The very last thing I ate at Siena—a cannolo whose shell shattered under the tooth on a creamy, cool, dark-chocolate-laced ricotta filling—briefly allowed me to forget the many missteps that preceded it.
But in the end, despite all the earnest claims of authenticity, this isn't really a place to take Italian food seriously. Partners Lucas Stoioff and David Rekhson don't seem to want to abandon the primacy of drinking that exists at their other spots (you can nurse your own personal vodka tap at Public House). Nearly a third of Siena Tavern is dominated by its main bar in the round (though the open pizza and mozzarella bar in the main dining room is capable of getting you juiced as well). At either you'll find a list of numbered cocktails based on midshelf liquors such as Bacardi, Absolut, and Maker's Mark, batched and bottled for expediency, and priced at a steep $12, which is galling—even for this overpriced neighborhood—given the small effort required to pour them.
For all its flaws, the front-of-the-house staff at Siena Tavern is extraordinarily competent and receptive to hitches (although particular servers should limit their check-ins to something less frequent than once every ten minutes.) I rarely, if ever, send dishes back to the kitchen, but on one visit I had no choice with a seafood brodetto, a chumbucket filled with overcooked fish and shellfish mired in a thick, almost marinara-like tomato broth. A server whisked it away and promptly replaced it with one she promised had just come off the line. This was no better, filled with latexlike mussels and rubber-band shrimp, prompting a visit from a concerned manager who took it off the bill and sent out dessert: the cannoli. Take the cannoli. Leave the rest of this place to the firsties, groupies, and tourists that Siena Tavern will come to depend on.