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Chicago Restaurant Spotlight: Balena

Balena is one of my favorite Chicago restaurants. It was also one of the Time Out Eat Out Awards nominees. The food at Balena isn’t overly complicated. It is true to the ingredients and lets each one shine.

I have dined there several times, and most recently Charles and I went on a double date with our friend Adrian (of Angry Aussie Food) and his girlfriend Pam. I want to let you know that Adrian is seriously the least angry person I know. He loves food just as much as me, and Charles and Pam kept laughing at us as we photographed our meal. “Don’t get each others camera in your shot!” they kept saying.

The pictures might speak louder than my words here. Just trust me, everything is just as incredible as it looks. I should let you know that we ate every bite, of everything.

We started with several appetizers. The first to come out was the focaccia which was served with a creamy ricotta drizzled with olive oil and topped with fresh black pepper. Sometimes focaccia can be really heavy or too crunchy or drown in olive oil, but Balena’s focaccia was light and bready and seasoned with a great blend of herbs. The other items were ordered were a bit better, but only because even a well composed focaccia can only be so exciting.

In anticipation of our meal Adrian tweeted a photo of the cheese plate he had enjoyed during his last visit to Balena. Surprisingly I hadn’t tried Balena’s cheese plate and had to try it after seeing the photo. We chose a cheese plate with a blue cheese and goat cheese blend, pecorino with honeycomb, and a cheese blend similar to a brie. The cheese platter came with very thin slices of crunchy bread. I especially loved the pecorino gran riserva that was served drizzled in honey.

The bruschetta at Balena is a bit famous. The New York Times just wrote an article about it (and shared a recipe). The waitstaff will come around and give everyone large steak knives before the bruschetta is brought out. The bruschetta is made with thick slices of bread and is generously piled with toppings. We ordered the ricotta, pea and watercrest bruschetta. The bread was gently toasted, the ricotta and peas were creamy, and the watercrest added a nice subtle crunch. One thing Balena gets right is the texture of foods. The bruschetta is the perfect combination of crisp and crunchy and smooth and creamy. The flavor was outstanding. Adrian said that is tasted clean, in that the ingredients taste really pure. And that is a good thing.

Next up was the Arugula Salad with Pine Nuts and Dante Cheese. This is the perfect example of how Balena doesn’t over complicate things. With just three ingredients and a light dressing, the ingredients didn’t over power each other and you could enjoy each one.

Balena’s pizza has one of the best crusts out there. It is crisped to perfection, but bread like and chewy in the middle. We chose a mushroom pizza with thyme and fontina and taleggio cheeses. The mushrooms had such a rich flavor. The mushroom pizza is one of their more traditional offerings. Last time I went to Balena we had the Brussels Sprout Pizza with Pancetta, Pecorino, and Red Onion and I absolutely loved it. I love that Balena offers classic pizzas along with more unique creations.

Balena’s pasta is homemade in house. It has that wonderful fresh pasta taste that instantly reminds me of that semester I spent in Italy. We tried Adrian’s favorite pasta, the Tagliolini Nero, which is a squid ink pasta that was served with Crab, Sea Urchin and Chili. Everyone else loved this, I enjoyed it, but maybe squid ink isn’t my thing?

This is what a $69, 36 ounce porterhouse steak looks like. I am the type of person who goes to a steakhouse if I want a steak. I had never ordered a steak at an Italian restaurant before, and apparently I have been missing out. Ordering this giant steak was a group decision and we all shared it. The crust of the steak is what is important. It needs to be crisp, thick, and well seasoned; this steak was and it was phenomenal.

A porterhouse doesn’t cook totally evenly, and I think that makes it great for sharing. We ordered it medium rare, and they cooked it perfectly. The thick middle of the steak was medium rare, while the thinner end pieces were more medium.

A steak is worth $69 if you immensely enjoy every bite, and eat every bite. It may be too much for just two people to order, so we might have to bring friends to Balena so we can order it again.

We ended our meal with one of Balena’s Composed Sundaes. I love this concept, of taking the classic ice cream sundae to the next level. This had the most incredible vanilla ice cream, warm homemade chocolate chip cookies (sorry Mom, but they might have been even better than yours), and chocolate sauce. It was the perfect end to our meal.

If you have the chance, go to Balena. I promise you that you will love it. In addition to having some of the best food in Chicago, the space is gorgeous. I told my husband that I wanted to move in. The space has high vaulted ceilings with a sky light and you feel as though you have entered a church. It is grand without being stuffy. It feels like home, and maybe that is why I wanted to move in. Balena is a great place for a date, or dinner with friends. It is the perfect place to go before a show at Steppenwolf Theatre, since it is right next door.

Balena’s menu is focused on what is seasonal and locally available, which means the menu changes frequently. The items I wrote about may not be on the menu for long. My photos aren’t great… so head over to Balena’s website. My friend Dana’s father took absolutely stunning photos for Balena’s site.

Balena is located in Chicago’s Lincoln Park at 1633 North Halsted Street. It is a short walk from the North and Clyborn Red Line stop.

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