Tuesday, June 26, 2012

balena - chicago, il

1633 north halsted street
chicago, il 60614

opened in early 2012, balena is the newest member of the boka restaurant group, an umbrella containing boka, girl & the goat, perrenial virant, and gt fish & oyster. the kitchen is helmed by chef/owner chris pandel and pastry chef amanda rockman who both also run the show at the wildly popular wicker park nose to tail themed restaurant the bristol. while the inspiration for the bristol's food comes from the mediterranean, the chefs have shifted their focus to italy for balena. situated on halsted street just a stones throw away from the restaurant group's flagship establishment boka, balena has been received quite well in its first couple of months, and was seemingly a perfect choice for an early dinner prior to attending the explosions in the sky concert at the chicago theatre.
arriving via taxi five minutes prior to our 5pm reservation, things got off to a somewhat rocky start as the staff seemed genuinely surprised we were a few minutes early. we were told that they were still setting up for the evening and it was suggested that we wait at the bar until they were ready for us. while not being seated early is certainly acceptable, i was irked a bit when we were not actually seated until 5:08. our reservation was made weeks in advance and although i recognize that it was right at opening, not being ready when you supposedly know diners are coming is unprofessional. with this tidbit noted, i will say that for the rest of the night the service was mostly on point with our head server being particularly knowledgeable and pleasant. also worth mentioning is that we were seated at what i feel was likely the best seat in the house. a seat that allowed us to sit side by side and gave us a full view of the gorgeous main dining room as well as the elevated kitchen to our left.

the menu at balena is comprised of four main categories: starters, pizza, pasta, and grill/oven/rotisserie. also offered is a nice selection of house made breads as well as cheeses and cured meats. for drinks, there is an interesting list of craft cocktails that are all rated from one to ten in terms of their bitterness as well more than thirty italian wines available by the glass. after looking things over for a bit and talking with our server about portion sizes and ordering strategies, we placed our order with a warning from our server that we had better be hungry.
cocktails are typically our first order of business, and on this night things were no different. pictured to the left is my selection, the francesco. rated at a five on balena's bitterness scale, this drink was a fantastic drink made with averno amero, templeton rye whiskey, carpano antica, and cointreau. for carrie the choice was the manlino, a drink rated at a three and consisting of aperol, st. george terrior gin, fresh sour, and soda.
arriving on the heels of our cocktails was peter's bread, a plate of house made varieties including a lemon pepper challah, taleggio and mushroom spelt, tomato crostini, and nigella grissini. as expected, i wasn't big on the grissini as crisp bread stick rarely do much for me, but all of the other breads were great with the lemon pepper challah being absolutely stellar. three garnishes were served with the bread: olive oil, onion jam, and a third that i cannot recall.
from the starters portion of the menu, here we have fennel cured salmon with potato, mascarpone, and trout roe. honestly, none of the starters really jumped out at me as something i just had to try, and this was ordered somewhat randomly. however this dish was a hit with the ample portion of firm and flavorful salmon tasting great with the briny bursts of roe. the mascarpone was an afterthought to me (i think carrie actually ate it all) but the potatoes added an interesting bit of texture to the fray.
shortly after our salmon dish was finished, all three of our pasta selections arrived at once. above is the farm egg tajarin with sage, brown butter, and pecorino romano. tajarin hails from italy's piedmont region, and is made from an egg dough giving it a firmer bite. pairing the pasta with just butter and simple garnishes really allowed the noodles to be the star of the dish. superb!
moving on, the next pasta was the dish i was most excited for as it featured one of my favorite foods, uni. listed on the menu as 'tagliolini nero, crab, sea urchin, chili', this offering was as good as i had hoped. the pasta had a nice briny flavor which was great with the sweet crab meat and slight heat from the chiles. while the was just one bite of uni, it smooth and luscious as expected. this was easily the best dish of the meal, and a most order at balena in my opinion.
finally, we have the spring pea ravioli with mushrooms and young onion. being that i ate most of the first two pastas myself, i only tried a bite of this one as i knew we still had pizza coming. i do not recall enough about it to accurately comment, but carrie reports that the mixture of the sweet peas and earthy mushrooms was delicious.
as our pasta dishes were being cleared away and a circular rack was brought to the table for the pizza, carrie and i began to realize that we may have bitten off a bit more than we could chew. measuring 16 inches, the pizza we chose was the spicy salami with tomato and mozzarella. we slowly started in on the pie and were met with a slight disappointment. while the flavors were nice, the crust was very crisp and cracker like, going against my preference of charred yet chewy. i will say that we were both quite full at this point in the meal which could have attributed to our initial let down regarding the pizza. i say initial let down because half of our pizza was boxed to go and i loved it cold later that night as the crust had softened up a bit. to pair with our pizza, i asked our server to make a wine recommendation as i am lost when it comes to italian wines, and she handled the request perfectly making a few suggestions and explaining why each one would work.
no matter how full i am, there is always room for dessert, and i knew that pastry chef amanda rockman's creations were not to be missed. with classic italian desserts like tiramisu and affogato on the menu along with unique composed sundaes, carrie and i debated each ordering our own but in the end decided to split a single item. our choice was the pistachio gelati sundae with burnt orange caramel, pistachio nougat, and confit orange, which proved to the a delicious and texturally nuanced dessert. i only wish that i had a bit more stomach capacity so i could have also sampled one of the classic desserts.

as a whole, our meal at balena was a success. with the exception of the initial seating issue everything went really well from a service standpoint, and the food was mostly excellent as the only question mark for me was the pizza which was likely due in part to my full belly. this was our second meal at a boka restaurant group property (girl & the goat was the first) and definitely makes me want to try the rest along with the bristol for more from chefs pandel and rockman. i would also jump at the chance to visit balena again with a group to try more dishes without filling up so quickly.
Balena on Urbanspoon

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