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If Nellcote is where the drug-addled rock stars are partying, Balena is where the house servants cut loose with the serfs, the idealized rural Italia where stout peasants feed on their own noodles, wine, and animals that happily fattened themselves for the task.
Last week Mike Sula reviewed Nellcote, Jared Van Camp's Stones-inspired luxe-meets-louche villa on Randolph Street. This week it's Balena, like Nellcote, an ambitious pan-Italian-inspired cucina offering pizza, handmade pastas, house-made breads, and shareable plates. The difference: under Chris Pandel and a couple marquee members of his team at the Bristol, preparations are unfussy and "resolutely rustic" as opposed to decadent, and the atmosphere, rather than sceney, is big-hearted and easygoing. Nearly everything on this menu—from the grilled prawns with aioli to crispy salt-and-pepper chicken thighs with greens and green garlic to a plate of Korean-style thin-cut short ribs—is "something you want to tear apart with your teeth like a rabid animal," says Sula. In other words, score another success for the Boka Restaurant Group (Boka, Perennial Virant, Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster, and Landmark, the unlamented Halsted Street barstaurant Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz closed to make way for Balena).
In Key Ingredient, Amanda Rockman, pastry chef for both Balena and the Bristol, hits the sweet spot with pu-erh tea, a fermented specialty of China's Yunnan province. Her pu-erh panna cotta with raspberry-tea "jus," garnished with candied hazelnuts and sprigs of microbasil she applied by hand, looks as mouthwatering as the rest of the menu at Balena, where she's offering sundaes built on house-made gelati and a tiramisu with roasted pears that Sula declares an evolutionary leap. Next up is Toni Roberts of the Wit's State and Lake and Roof, working with sheep's milk.