The Bristol, about five years ago. That restaurant featured small plates and nose-to-tail cooking. There was more to it than that but many of my friends (and I) thought of The Bristol, they thought of meat. When I first heard that Chef Pandel would be opening an Italian inspired restaurant, it did not compute. I could not see how you would get to Italian from where he was cooking at The Bristol and I told him as much when I met him at a benefit later that year (before the new place was opened). He told me not to brush it off so quickly. I admitted that he was a good chef which would allow him to make Italian cuisine, but I still remained a little skeptical. A friend of mine went to Balena shortly after it opened last year and raved about it, telling me that it was a restaurant that needed to be on my short list. When I saw that it was participating in Restaurant Week, where participating restaurants will offer a 3 course prix fixe meal for $22 for lunch and $33 or $44 for dinner (plus drinks, tax, and tip), I decided to give it a try. Located near the retail hub around Clybourn and North Avenue and near a couple of theaters, Balena does see a lot of traffic so I shouldn't have been surprised by the sheer size of the space. The space uses a lot of hardwood and pillars with a high vaulted ceiling with both overhead and table lighting. The bar is at the front and while it does have the standards, it specializes in cocktails featuring Italian bitters. The list, as a matter of fact, lists the relative bitterness of it's specialty cocktails. The kitchen is off to one side in the back and while elevated, it is also fairly open so the action in the kitchen can be watched if you so desire. There is a hallway like a closed catwalk on the second floor where offices can be seen. I was seated in a back corner of the open dining room opposite the kitchen where I had a good view of the entire restaurant. When he was just running The Bristol, Chef Pandel became known for his charcuterie program. It should not be a surprise that charcuterie would make an appearance at Balena as well as the Italians are well known for their charcuterie (salami and prosciutto being but two examples). My first course was Porchetta di Testa with Lemon Zest and a little Olive Oil. When I saw it listed, I recognized it as charcuterie but was unsure in what form it was. When it was served, I saw three thin slices of meat that looked similar to round prosciutto with lemon zest and a little olive oil. Trying it, I really enjoyed it. It was very light and delicate with a salted pork flavor. The tang from the zest played very well with the flavor of the pork. While I was at the restaurant I looked up porchetta to find out what exactly, it is. It turns out that it is a lightly salted and cured pig face that has been rolled and poached. As I said, it was really good, but I was surprised as to how light it was. I would have expected pig face to be that light. It was a great start and it got me set for the rest of the meal.
The next course was another meat course, but this one was cooked. I had Beef Short Ribs with Calabrian Peppers, Onions, and Orange Zest. It was meaty, spicy, sweet, and unfortunate. It was very good but being short ribs there were a lot of bones in the meat. It was unfortunate because this was served in a fine dining restaurant which, while it wasn't required, did encourage me to eat with a knife and fork. Had I been in a regular barbecue joint, I may well have just used my hands. It was a good course, but because it was ribs, it did require some work with a knife and fork.
The next course was the pasta course and it was much easier to eat than the short ribs. It was a very colorful, striking, complex, and made for a great picture. It was Beet Agnolotti with Smoked Salmon, Poppy Seeds, Dill, and Creme Fraiche. The first thing that has to be said of this dish was that the agnolotti was very red. This was obviously from the beets. On top of this were several pieces of smoked salmon, a couple of dollops of creme fraiche, and several sprigs of dill. The poppy seeds were sprinkled over the whole dish. The agnolotti was perfectly cooked. It was toothsome and had an earthy flavor, the salmon was smoky and had a nice firm texture. The creme fraiche added a nice tang, and the dill provided a complementary flavor to the salmon and tied it to the vegetal flavor of the agnolotti.
The dessert was very good. It took a simple idea and amped it up. It was a Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Spiced Cranberries and Craquelin. Panna Cotta is a simple and fairly standard Italian dessert. It will typically use fresh fruit to add a complexity to the custard which by itself would simply be sweet. The buttermilk panna cotta was richer than a standard panna cotta and had a little tang. Cranberries are normally sweet with some bitterness, the fact that they were spiced added a nice bite, and the craquelin, which is essentially croutons made from sugar-coated brioche, added textural variety in a nice crunch.
I really enjoyed my meal hear and after having gone, I can see how you can go from local, seasonal, nose-to-tail, to Italian. There really wasn't that much of a stretch. I am glad my friend recommended Balena. It will be recommendation I make to those that ask.