About 9-10 months ago, there was a crazy rumor that The Bristol and the Boka Restaurant Group were going to make a baby together. Lo and behold, Balena, their sweet baby girl, was born on the streets of Lincoln Park. There were a lot of minds going into the project, most notably Chef Chris Pandel, Kevin Boehm (the Bo- in Boka), John Ross (The Bristol), Rob Katz (you guessed it, the -ka in Boka), Phil Walters (The Bristol), and Just Desserts gal Amanda Rockman. We, The Taste Buds (for the record, I hate talking in third person), speculated something was up with these two groups last summer when Chef Pandel was the only non-Boka chef to participate in the Quickfire Challenges at Perennial Virant. Little did we know that a restaurant would be born…
Fast forward to 2012, when anticipation started to kick in. Many Chicago foodies played the waiting game, and the Balena team teased us with pictures and videos of food and decor. I received word from a source that Balena would be having a soft opening before it opened doors to the public; I needed to wait no longer. I exchanged information with my source, and the rest is history. We had a table at one of the most anticipated Chicago restaurants of the year. Balena is beautiful, and reminds me of pictures of Italy (because I’ve never been..yet). Gorgeous high ceilings with windows galore, not to mention a beautiful bar and open kitchen; 555 International has done another wonderful job.
But as much as I stared at the walls and ceiling, which I legitimately did for an extended period of time, we were there to eat. To kick things off, we looked over the extensive beverage menu. There are over 300 wines to choose from, of which about 95% are Italian. In addition to the vino, Balena offers a number of craft beers and mixed cocktails from the mind of Debbi Peek. Cocktails are numbered from one to ten, with one being most sweet, to ten, which packs the most punch. Now on to the food..
The menu is split into six different categories: meat/cheese/bread, starters, pizza, pasta, grill/oven/rotisserie, and desserts. Hungry, and living by the motto “When in Rome…” we ordered something from each section.
The cured meats came out as a trio of thinly sliced delicacies: paprika cured pork, gin and juice salami, and bresaola. The plate is also served with bread and vegetables.
For a starter, we ordered the spicy grilled short ribs, with charred orange and basil. Much of the spice was at first lost, but then the flavor came post-mastication. The citrus and flavor of basil added another layer to what would probably be a a solid dish to begin with.
The dishes were paced very well, and what followed was probably the favorite of the evening: lasagna pie. Our server described it as “the best of both worlds.” We figured, we like lasagna, we like pizza. How could this go wrong? It doesn’t, that’s how.The crust is both crisp and fluffy, and as oxymoronic as that sounds, it’s the honest truth.
When it came down to pasta, we were torn between, well, all of them. It ultimately came down to talking with our server, and we decided to try the tagliolini nero, served with crab, sea urchin, and chile. Easily the runner up in the evening’s experience, this flavor-packed dish is one of the best pasta dishes I’ve had in quite some time. Note: I did order some pasta to go, and yes I felt awkward doing it. Wound up getting the orecchiette with lemon, kale, bread crumbs, and chili. When I got home, it was great. Even the most harsh pasta critic, my fiancée, approved (her mom’s a chef).
To round out the dinner part of the evening, we ordered the rabbit loin stuffed with garlic and chives. While I haven’t had rabbit too many times, I must say that I didn’t know what to expect, flavor-wise. Most would say that “it tastes like chicken,” but it really didn’t; it was more like pork. Interesting. Could it be all of the familiar flavors behind the olive oil, chives, and garlic? Possibly. Or was it the cooking method in itself? Again, it could be. But hey, I’m not complaining; it was thoroughly enjoyed.
To eat at Balena (or The Bristol) and not have dessert is like not remembering your anniversary; you just don’t do it. You’re really missing out. Chef Amanda Rockman’s personality shines in each of her ten, yes ten, offerings; she’s oh so sweet, as are her desserts. There are gelati and sorbetti sundaes (six in total), as well as four classics: tiramisu, affogato, caramel pine nut tart, and chocolate budino.On this trip, we got the affogato and doughnuts, which Jeffy says “rivals Mindy Segal‘s,” and the caramel pine nut tart, which is so sweet that it’ll steal your girlfriend.
But what made this experience at Balena that much better was service. Boehm, Ross, Katz, and Walters were all walking around and talking to guests, one of whom was Fabio Viviani from Top Chef. We also had a chance to talk to Boehm and Katz on our way out, as well as Chef Pandel, who asked us how “bad” everything was, and Chef Rockman, she knew who we were based on our dessert order.
Was it worth the hype? Absolutely. Should you go? Most definitely. Make a reservation (they take em!) or have a pie delivered (if you’re lucky, Chef Pandel will deliver like in the preview video…or not). I honestly can’t wait to go back to Balena. It’s a place that I’d frequent. Yeah, it’s one of those places.