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The peasant's party at Balena

The Boka Group comes late to pan-Italia, but it's worth the wait

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If I were the sort of food writer who thought about page views as much as I'm supposed to, I'd write a blog post with a headline like "Squid ink is the new bacon," and then send the unpaid interns out to kitchens across the north side to take pictures of all the black food chefs are cooking these days.

Here's what the Tweet linking to the post would say: "What is it about mucus and melanin-based pigment ejaculated by cephalopods that has top chefs singing 'Paint It Black'?"

Then you could gape at the squid ink arancini at Bar Ombra; the squid ink spaghetti tossed with chile and king crab at RPM; the squid ink pasta alla chitarra with crabmeat and bread crumbs, chile, and mint at the Florentine; and—to validate the Stones reference—the strozzapreti with lobster, mint, and chile at Nellcote.

On second thought, if you looked at the last three dishes you might wonder if Italians and their imitators knew how to do anything with squid ink besides kneading it into noodles and tossing it with crustaceans.

I loved and wrote about all of those dishes in recent times, but by now you'd think everybody—especially chefs—would be bored with their ilk. It's with that preconception that I approached Chris Pandel's tagliolini nero with crab, sea urchin, and, yes, chiles, at Balena, the Italian alliance between the Bristol and the Boka Group (Boka, Perennial Virant, GT Fish & Oyster, Girl & the Goat). I was happy to be surprised. Mounded on a pool of uni compound butter, interspersed with shreds of crustacean, and topped with a briny, foamy lobe of sea urchin gonad, it's the most delicious, spicy tangle of fish netting to wash up on the beach yet.

Typically, Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz and the ace chefs they headhunt open restaurants ahead of looming trends, but Balena is only the latest of many pizza-anchored, pan-Italian concepts that have sprouted like porcini in the last few years.

balena restaurant tripe
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Tripe in a thick sauce of marrow, pancetta, and pureed chickpeas

For better or worse, the easiest comparison you could make to Balena is Nellcote, the Randolph Street restaurant I reviewed last week—not just because their menu formats are similar, but because their two executive chefs both worked at Osteria di Tramonto, which in retrospect seems like it could be the prototype for this late, something-for-everyone approach to Italian food: pizzas, handmade pastas, in-house breads for an upcharge, plus a varied menu of shareable smaller and larger plates. Where they differ conceptually is that Jared Van Camp's dishes at Nellcote make overt pretensions toward luxury, while Pandel's—especially that tagliolini—are the uncomposed opposite: resolutely rustic, unfussy preparations, even when prepared with high-end ingredients.

This is borne out best in the starters and the grilled or roasted meat and fish entrees. Strips of chewy tripe in a thick, lemony sauce of marrow, pancetta, and pureed chickpeas is neither too funky nor too antiseptic, an offal dish to rival the great one (tripe, morcilla, and garbanzos) at Mark Mendez's Vera.

Olive oil-poached tuna, piled high with cannellini beans on bruschetta, is the ideal the ancients were striving for when they first canned the fish. Nearly everything on this menu—grilled prawns with aioli, their heads as bursting with juice as the grape halves sprinkled among them; a gooey crock of whole onions cooked down to caramelized candy; crispy salt-and-pepper chicken thighs buried in greens and green garlic; and even the lone oddball on this menu, a plate of Korean-style thin-cut short ribs in a vibrant orange, chile, and basil-spiked sauce—is something you want to tear apart with your teeth like a rabid animal.

Pandel's pasta program is just as interesting as Van Camp's, with some unusual shapes that could simply use a little more executional tweaking. Take the Piedmontese tajarin, an uncommon chitarra-shaped pasta traditionally cooked in upper-class kitchens because it was made with only flour and precious egg yolks (no water). But whatever distinction that lends is lost in a dousing of sweet pork ragu. Similarly the gigli, or "lilies"—trumpetlike curls tossed with guanciale and clams—were a bit oversalted and overcooked. Switching the sauces on these two might have made all the difference.

Pizzas are good too, every bit up to the high standards we expect in this Neapolitan age: a puffy, yeasty crust and a flat, well-blistered interior that softens toward its nucleus, just strong enough to support the "Lasagna Pie" with Bolognese sauce, ricotta, and basil.

balena tiramisu
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Tiramisu plus roasted pear = evolutionary leap

The Boka fellows have recruited the whole star-studded marquee from the Bristol, not just Pandel but pastry chef Amanda Rockman and mixologist Debbi Peek. The latter presents a cocktail program entirely based on the bitter herbal Italian liqueurs known as amari. It seems a risky move for this neighborhood, but the drinks, assigned placement on scale of bitterness from one to ten, are across-the-board approachable and still manage to be interesting, from the sweet, citrus-kissed, Chartreuse and gin Elixir, to the Fib, topping the list at ten with a bracing mix of barley-based gin, grapefruit, and basil.

Rockman's list of desserts is focused on gelato sundaes, none better than the pistachio ice cream with burnt orange caramel and torrone, and a few brilliant tweaks on tired old favorites. The cohesive tiramisu slice with roasted pear is such a evolutionary leap ahead of the amorphous gobs you're used to that you'll never go back.

Balena replaces the Boka Group's second restaurant, Landmark—the only place in the history of the growing empire I wouldn't recommend. Prices are a bit high; a $30 whole roasted sea bass—a crispy, skinny, white-fleshed beauty meant "for the table"—really means a table for two. But 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. I may have liked the food a bit better at Nellcote—but only a bit. It's much easier to enjoy the good eating in the big, easygoing room at Balena.

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