Chris Pandel is not new to the Chicago dining scene. His smaller restaurant, The Bristol, opened with a cult like following and eventually got every critic on board with how good it was. The menu was focused with chef Pandel’s creations frequently featuring some form of pork. But, this latest project with his partners and the Boka group is no small affair. Balena means whale and with the scope of what went on to get the project open it could have possibly swallowed poor Pinocchio again.
When you enter the restaurant, you wouldn’t know it had been a long tenured restaurant, Landmark, beforehand. It feels like the design team kept the bones of the building and added a few pieces to modernize and lighten up the space. Along the way, there were some fun discoveries – the bar backdrop in the private dining room even came as a surprise to long time owners Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm.
Once you get settled in to your table in the cathedral like space you begin to focus on the menu. The drinks list is well crafted and creative with some well-known classics but I’d go with an original, Strawberry no 1. The wine list is well explained with maps of the region and a glossary – because you’ll take that long to look.
The menu has a traditional breakdown. You can start with the ever present salumi and cheese. The items change regularly. The bread basket is not small and ordered a la carte – if you love bread worth the $5. The starters are a mix of hot and cold items designed to be a first course. The asparagus on my second visit was full of flavor and well-dressed in a vinegary dressing. The charred quail on my first visit was exceptional. The only downside to this menu is that it does change! So what you love one visit may be gone the next.
The pizzas and pasta are best done as a middle course. You could do a pizza as your sole entrée but it’s best to share. The crust has a good chew and very Neapolitan in style. It seems EVERYONE is doing a pizza these days but this one is definitely worth ordering. All you need to do is decide on the toppings. When it comes to the pastas, my advice is to order more than one and ensure you get your fair share. They are that good. The rigatoni while smaller than the traditional larger noodle was very good in a rich tomato sauce. I also enjoyed the orecchiette – lemon and kale as well as the tagliolini nero – crab and sea urchin. The pasta may be some of the best in the city and chef Pandel didn’t need to mill his own flour. If you’re rushing to the theatre and get a seat last minute, definitely order a pasta and that’s coming from an Italian who rarely ever does.
The traditional finish to an Italian meal has the larger meat and fish elements. These are served a la carte so beware that you may need to order sides. The head on shrimp with grape salad shows cases the sweetness of the shrimp. The pork was an ample portion and had nice flavor. If you find the duck leg with the fig and amaro on the menu – get it!
Chef Pandel is hitting his stride on a whole new level at Balena. He’s having fun and seems to be comfortable with the cuisine and the scope of the restaurant space. It helps that he’s backed up by Amanda Rockman on the pastry side. My recommendations for the sweet side – get any sundae you like and don’t be afraid of the composed desserts – none will disappoint. Actually, the only disappointing part would be to not order something at all.
The mix of clientele is diverse – older theatre goers to the douchebag corporate guy who knows everything at 28 asking stupid questions of the bartenders. You know you’ve made it when you can appeal to everyone. The service runs smoothly from this veteran restaurant team. Perhaps the only hiccup could be the overall cost of dinner. When you order 2 dishes to start (salad and pasta) and 2 entrees with a side plus a sundae with 2 glasses of wine and coffee, it stings a bit that a Tuesday night could dent the wallet by $150 with tax and tip. Yet it seems, that is the ongoing trend of restaurant prices. With bigger projects come bigger check averages.
Regardless of my cost anxiety, get to Balena and enjoy a whale of a space with a whale of a dinner. With all the new spots opening, this may be the best in class so far.
Balena – 1633 N Halsted, Chicago, IL – 312-867-3888
Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe also contributes to Eater.com Chicago and mydailyfindchicago.com