Friday, October 5, 2012

Dining Out in Chicago: Balena

The moment I signed up to run a half marathon this spring, I started thinking about my pre-race carb fest. If I was going to commit to running farther than I had ever run in my life, I was going to make darn sure I adequately prepared (read: rewarded) myself with a feast of bread and pasta the night before. I spent weeks leading up to the race deliberating over a restaurant, and eventually settled on Balena, a new pan-Italian spot in Lincoln Park.

As I walked into the restaurant on the eve of my half marathon, visions of carbohydrates danced in my head. It was warm night in June and a light breeze ushered us in through the open double doors into the lofty space abuzz with conversation. Immediately I felt at home.

Balena's inviting decor. Source: Tasting Table

The decor set the mood for a charming evening. Cathedral ceilings and stone floors are reminiscent of an Italian barn, but the abundance of metal accents gives it more of a modern, industrial feel. Several unusual design pieces, such as the large twinkling orbs hanging from the ceiling and a giant pastel wall clock, lend an element of intrigue to the decor. Along with a multitude of soft lights, these pieces transform a space that could be cold and cavernous into warm and welcoming. The service is equally pleasant, although I didn't feel it added much to the experience. Everyone we interacted with was friendly and helpful, but not overly so.

Peter's Bread: assortment of 5 homemade breads w/ garnishes

Now, as wonderful as I found the decor and ambiance at Balena, it was the food that truly won my heart.

Our menu consisted of:
Peter's Bread Lemon Pepper Challah, Taleggio and Mushroom Spelt, Mint & Spring Pea Bread, Tomato Crostini, Nigella Grissini, olive oil, tomato jam and white bean spread
Fava Bean Bruschetta Stracchino, lemon and frisée 
Bruschetta of Oil Poached Tuna white beans, red onions, carrots, celery, Italian parsley
Tagliolini Nero crab, sea urchin and chili
Rigatoni pork ragu 
White Pizza mushrooms, Fontina, Taleggio, scallions, thyme 
Affogato vanilla gelato, espresso, cinnamon sugar donuts
Blueberry Pie 'Sundae' blueberry gelato, lemon sorbet, blueberry compote, pecans, pie crust

The carb fest began with a fancy pants breadbasket- 5 different types of homemade bread served with an assortment of tasty garnishes. There was a fluffy, slightly sweet lemon pepper challah, which my dad mistook for cake, as well as two types of 'crackers' and a forgettable loaf made with spring pea and mint. But my favorite was the spelt, a coarse bread flavored with pungent Taleggio cheese and mushrooms. The creamy white bean spread and tomato jam that accompanied the breads were both delicious.

Fava bean bruschetta

For our appetizer, my mom and I shared bruschetta with a creamy spread of fava beans and Stracchino cheese topped with a generous helping of greens dressed with lemon. The fresh out of the garden taste of the favas and greens paired with the mild, creamy Stracchino was a delicious combination of flavors highlighted by a touch of acidity from the lemon.

My dad opted to start with the tuna and white bean bruschetta. While the large chunks of oil-poached tuna were incredibly fresh and tasty, the white beans were slightly undercooked for my taste. But the overall flavor profile of the dish was spot on. I loved the bits of carrot and red onion, and it was a nice, light start to the meal.

Tagliolini nero entree. Source: Chicago Reader

For the entree course, my mom and I shared the tagliolini pasta and a white pizza. The tagliolini was sensuous and divine in both taste and presentation. Long, flat ribbons of squid ink pasta were cooked perfectly al dente and topped with tender chunks of fresh crab meat and silky sea urchin that slid down the back of our throats like melted butter. Each bite ended with a playful kick from the chiles, which complemented the delicate seafood without overpowering it. The plating was equally striking. Pale pink crab and fiery red chiles stood out against the jet black tagliolini and a single dusty orange uni perched, shimmering, atop the mound of pasta. Flavor, balance, sex appeal—the dish had it all.

While the pasta was outstanding, it was the pizza that really stole the show. The crust was some of the best I've had outside of Italy. Not too thick, not too thin, not overly dense or airy, it was cooked to perfection with the slight crispiness that I consider the hallmark of a great pizza crust. It was topped with two different cheeses along with mushrooms, scallions and thyme. The combination of mild, buttery Taleggio and creamy, nutty Fontina paired perfectly with the earthiness of the mushrooms. The dish was seasoned perfectly, with just the right amount of salt and a touch of black pepper. Without a doubt, the highlight of the evening.

White pizza with mushrooms, scallions, and thyme

For his entree, my dad ordered the rigatoni with pork ragu, which I thought (almost) rivaled our pasta in terms of tastiness. Definitely a dish I'd like to revisit on another trip.

By the end of the meal, my mom and I were completely stuffed, but no great dinner is complete without we ordered two— the affogato and the blueberry pie 'sundae.' The affogato, which consisted of vanilla gelato served over a shot of espresso alongside two miniature cinnamon sugar donuts, was killer. But with the combination of coffee, ice cream and donuts, how can you really go wrong? It was a classic dessert that was extremely well executed. I found our second selection, an innovative twist on traditional blueberry pie, much more impressive. The dessert combined incredible blueberry gelato with lemon sorbet, blueberry compote, toasted pecans, and a piece of lattice pie crust. When all the components made it into a single bite, it was like the most delicious blueberry pie of all time, only cold and creamy. Major points for both taste and creativity.

Our server mentioned that pastry chef, Amanda Rockman, was in the middle of a trip to Switzerland where she was perfecting the art of making chocolate. As a full-blown chocoholic, I can't wait for a return trip to see how that turned out.

Blueberry pie 'sundae'

I walked out of Balena one happy camper and fully (read: overly) fueled for my race the next day. And in case you're wondering, I did finish my half marathon, in just over two hours. Great success!

The rundown:
Price: $$$ (Between $31 and $60 a person, including one drink, tax and tip)
Reservations: Yes
What to Wear: Casual
Vibe: casual, laid back yet trendy
Good for: casual date, group dinner, fun night out with friends, dinner with parents/family, pre-theater dinner, wine & charcuterie meetup

Final verdict: a full-blown carb festival in all its glory. Definitely worth visiting...and revisiting.


  1. I'm definitely coming here for my next Wine and Charcuterie Meetup.

    1. That's great to hear, Emily. I added that to the list with you in mind.