Balena: Carbo Loading is Not Optional

Wow. And wow again.

From the soaring wood-beamed ceilings hung with glowing balls of light and wire to the lovely, informed service and the terrific food, this is one inspired journey to rustic Italia.

Balena (which means whale in Italian), crowded even on a summer Monday evening, is yet another hit from the Boka Group (Boka, Girl and the Goat, Perennial Virant and GT Fish & Oyster). Everything—starting with a bitters-centric cocktail list from mixologist Debbi Peek through uber-flavorful desserts by pastry chef Amanda Bockman—is ridiculously good.

For God’s Sake, Eat the Bread!

And believe me, this is not the place to be carb-conscious. It would be an untenable waste not to savor Peter Becker’s astounding breads ($6 for a plate of five varieties with garnishes), which one night included Taleggio & Mushroom Spelt, Tomato Crostini, Mint & Spring Pea, Lemon Pepper Challah and Nigella Grissini. Better yet, get The Balena Platter ($29), which pairs the breads with three well-chosen cheeses and three cured meats from The Smoking Goose in Indianapolis. “Way to go, Hoosiers!”

The menu is seasonally driven and filled with gems like the starter of Zingerman’s Burrata ($14), a creamy fresh mozzarella of Ann Arbor provenance paired with sweetly earthy roasted beets and crunchy celery root. We also loved the Fava Bean Bruschetta ($11) topped with a tangle of frisee and lemon zest and strips of salty Stacchino cheese.

Pasta in the House

Then, back to the carbo loading, with pastas made in house by Chef/Owner Chris Pandel (of Chicago’s The Bristol), who has clearly learned a thing or two about semolina. Try a nest of the Farm Egg Tajarin ($15), coated simply and classically with brown butter and sage, or perhaps the Spring Pea Ravioli ($16) with sautéed wild mushrooms, fresh snap peas and young onions.

And Lord have mercy, the Rhubarb Pizza ($15). Such a yummy, blistery crust, straight out of a wood-fired oven, here topped with tart, shaved rhubarb, creamy ricotta, pancetta and wild mint, all drizzled with olive oil. It sounded so funky that I had to order it, and was justly rewarded.

There are a few dishes from the grill and rotisserie, and while the Grilled Head-On Prawns ($19) with grapes and finger chiles was the one dish that we didn’t love, I highly endorse the Salt and Pepper Chicken Thighs ($19), amply seasoned with green garlic and coriander and garnished with a toupee of vinaigrette-tossed summer greens. The Baked Polenta ($7) with tomato fondue is a side dish worthy of an entrée.

Get It, Girl

Desserts (all $9) are a must here. The Gianduja Chocolate Tart is a stunner, with deep, rich cocoa and toasty hazelnut flavors predominating. Ditto the Coure della Crème Semifreddo, creamy unctousness paired with a creative berry panzanella.

But it’s the composed sundaes that will really make you weep. Opt for the Pistachio Gelati layered with burnt orange caramel and pistachio nougat and you will brim with goodwill toward your fellow man.

Conveniently located across the street from Steppenwolf, Balena is going on my permanent rotation list. I can’t wait to go back into the belly of the whale.

4.5 out of 5 stars (A)

1633 N. Halsted St.

Photo credits:
Food, Jeff Kauck
Interiors, Eric Wagner