Last Friday Mike and I finally got the chance to visit Balena with my cousin and her husband. I’ve made reservations several times and for one reason or another we had to cancel…but not this time! Thanks to GM Erin, our awesome server Patrick, a couple great wines, and some amazing food, we had a 3-hour Italian-inspired feast to remember! (Apparently I’m on an Italian kick lately!)
As soon as we walked into Balena I was blown away. The high ceilings, exposed wood beams, the lighting, the bar…they’ve really made great use of this beautiful space!
After getting started with a bottle of wine we poured over the menu and tried to narrow down our selections to a (somewhat) reasonable amount of food. Erin and Patrick gave us some great descriptions of the dishes and suggestions so we were pretty confident that anything we ordered would be a winner. Like Davanti Enoteca, Balena offers a variety of smaller plates that are perfect for sharing. We found that a group of 4 was the perfect number to try a good amount of dishes, have a satisfying portion of each, and not be so full that you need to be rolled out.
Our first dishes were the Burrata and the Lamb Liver Bruschetta. Many of Balena’s dishes change seasonally so depending on when you go you’ll find different variations of these dishes on each visit. The Burrata dish was served with marinated beans and I’ll be completely honest-I could care less about those beans with their creamy, perfect burrata waiting for me! If you’re a fan of burrata or ricotta or any other creamy cheese that you can spread on warm toast, you need to order this dish! The bruschetta was also a very nice surprise-the lamb was chopped rather than blended into a paste like a pâté or a mousse and I really enjoyed the texture.
After the starters came the Brussels Sprout pizza. This is another one of their seasonal menu items that had just popped back on their menu that week and I was so excited to get a chance to try it. Brussels sprout lover or not, you will love this pizza, especially with their spicy chili oil drizzled on top! If you’re truly opposed to the brussels then I still recommend you try any of their tasty pizzas-their thin, wood fired crust is a hard one to beat!
Next up were the pastas and I have to say that these were the hardest to choose because they all sounded amazing. We ended up ordering 4 of their 7 pastas so I suppose we didn’t try too hard! The squid ink pasta with crab and sea urchin was the first to arrive along with the very popular orecchiette with kale and lemon. We each were able to try a tiny piece of the sea urchin, the crab was plentiful and the squid ink pasta very tasty. It was very easy to see why the orecchiette is one Balena’s most beloved dishes-the bright lemon flavor was something we had never experienced in a pasta and all I know is that I wanted more!
The second two pasta dishes to arrive were the Canestri with Pork Ragu and the Truffle Ravioli. When we initially gave our order to Patrick we didn’t order the pork ragu, but he informed us it was his favorite pasta and he would take care of us. We were all very happy he intervened because we all agreed that it was our favorite as well! The sauce was just so tasty, the pasta was cooked perfectly, and the light dusting of cheese on top brought it all together. The ravioli was another winner-mainly due to the generous portion of black truffle shaved on top.
Our final course was one of their dishes from the grill/oven/rotisserie portion of the menu-the Gunthorp Farms Chicken Thighs. You didn’t think we were stopping at pasta, did you?! To our surprise (and my extreme delight) they also sent us two sides to try along with the chicken-the polenta and the onion gratin. The chicken was done very well-a slight crisp to the skin, perfectly subtle seasoning, and juicy thigh meat underneath. Both sides were a hit as well…when something is topped with melty cheese it’s really hard to go wrong!
We reached our limit with the last few dishes so sadly their was no room for dessert on this visit, but I can assure you that I will be back for more! When you combine the food, wine, and atmosphere this was definitely more of an experience than just a simple dinner out on a Friday night. If you haven’t been, here’s another great Chicago restaurant to add to your list!