Restaurants

Balena offers hand-crafted pasta, wood-grilled meats

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The large, puffy-edged pizzas emerging from the oven signal this is an Italian kitchen at heart. But it's unlike most of the Italian offerings in Chicago.

That's because Balena - a collaboration between the talent at The Bristol and the owners of the Boka Group - is taking a very different approach to the traditional notion of an Italian restaurant in Chicago.

"Lots of pastas, pizzas, simple wood-fired elements like spit-roasted meats, whole-grilled fish, real simple, simple honest food," said chef Chris Pandel.

Take that pizza, for example. There are typically five on the menu, but this version, with a vibrant pistachio pesto and sheets of rich mortadella, mozzarella and a blend of stravecchio and parmesan, elevates it beyond the predictable. Same goes for the starter of smoked mackerel, paired with breadcrumbs, garlicky aioli and a soft cooked egg.

"Italian has never really gone out of style in this city - especially red sauce Italian, being Chicago - but I think that there's a new movement towards the lighter version of what that food actually is," Pandel said.

By his own definition, that might mean dark, squid ink-infused strands of tagliolini pasta, sautéed with serrano chilies, shallots and uni - or sea urchin - butter.. plus fresh crabmeat. The dish is crowned with even more fresh uni for a salty, unctuous accent.

Pandel also puts his wood-burning grill to good use, charring moist chicken thighs and plating them with oily green garlic, coriander and a mound of mustard greens.

"We impart a little bit of wood flavor into everything we do," he said.

Those woody notes extend to Debbi Peek's amaro-heavy drink menu.

"The entire program is based off bittering spirits. Meaning things we've imported from Italy to kind of gain something a little bit off the beaten path," said Pandel.

Amanda Rockman's desserts are simple, ranging from updated tiramisu to an assortment of sundaes.

"It's a very large dessert menu; lots and lots of sundaes, which is the American twist on what her gelato inspiration is," he said.

The demand for rustic, Italian food shows no signs of letting up in Chicago and Balena certainly advances that argument. It is nice to see we've made quite a bit of progress from the red sauce joints of a decade or so ago.

Balena
1633 N. Halsted
312-867-3888
www.balenachicago.com

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