Two of Chicago’s most well-known restaurant groups, Boka and The Bristol, have joined forces to create their first brainchild, Balena, a 10,000 square-foot artisanal Italian eatery in the heart of Lincoln Park.
The massive 170-seat restaurant is perfectly distributed and filled with diverse seating options. Bar seating, high-tops, an upstairs, a downstairs, and a private dining room in a custom wine cellar for up to 40 guests comprise the digs, but the best seats in the house are definitely a toss-up between a two-seat “kitchen table” just opposite a beautiful brick oven and a 10-top located in what’s called “The Cove,” a comfy nook on the main floor.
The interior is energetic and welcoming and designed by the same creative minds behind Girl & The Goat. Perfect lighting, an appropriate noise level, and a ceiling as high as the sky contribute to the warmth of the space previously occupied by Landmark.
A wine list is non-existent. Instead, you are presented a leather-bound wine book; featuring pages and pages of well-researched selections separated out by region and profiled perfectly. Whether you’re an expert sommelier or just know you like things “fruity,” you’ll be able to find what fits you quite easily. And if a cocktail suits you more appropriately, there are several creative craft options for every palette.
Moving on to the man behind the sophisticated, yet simple dining experience: Chef Chris Pandel (Tru, The Bristol). Pandel started us off with a refreshing, chilled asparagus salad and shaved parmesan, as well as sliced mackerel with a soft boiled egg and granola, a delicious combination of all the best textures and tastes.
We then moved on to two, perfectly-portioned hand-made pastas. First was the Tagliolini Nero, a black pasta with crab, sea urchin, and chile. Next was the Tajarin, an eggy long noodle with a spot-on pork ragu. Finally, we finished our savory selections with a few slices of delicious, snappy-crusted, brick-oven pizza. Delivery service is slated to be available in three-to-six months.
Dessert, created by pastry chef Amanda Rockman (as seen on Top Chef Just Desserts), included the best tiramisu I’ve had in the city, a composed sundae with homemade gelato, and fresh limonciello, also made in-house.
Service is on-point; friendly but knowledge; unsmothering, but never skipping a beat. Balena is a place your water glass will never go empty, your silverware will be replaced, and your napkin with be freshly folded when returning from the restroom.
All in all, Balena is a true winner and prices are quite fair for its level of all-around quality. Naturally, it’s a great fit for everything from date night, to girls night, to a rehearsal dinner, but for now it certainly belongs on every foodies “must-go” list.
– by Emily Belden