Chef Chris Pandel wants you to know something up front.
“I’m not Italian. I’ve never been to Italy. I’ve never worked for a great Italian chef,” says the Riverside native and kitchen maestro at Balena, Lincoln Park’s new Italianesque crowd-gatherer. “We’re inspired by Italian food. We’re not necessarily recreating it.”
To that I say “Chi se ne frega?!” (Although I’m not Italian, either.)
I say “Who cares?!” — with much emotion and hand gesturing — because I have been to Italy. And this is precisely the food you get there, whether dining in a trattoria or feasting in a friend’s home. It’s simple. It’s fresh. It’s flavorful. And you want to keep eating it until you think you’ll burst.
Balena is the new joint venture between the ultra-successful Boka Group (Girl and the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster, Perennial Virant) and the guys behind Bucktown’s beloved The Bristol. Pandel has scooted over from The Bristol — where he garnered an enthusiastic following for his nose-to-tail cooking — to concentrate on Balena’s everything-sounds-good menu of cheeses, cured meats, small-plate starters, pizzas, pastas, entrées and sides.
“It’s a more focused route than at The Bristol,” says Pandel of the singularly inspired Balena. “The Bristol is all over the map.”
Pandel’s rustic dishes each include approximately three or four ingredients. He uses a wood-burning oven, a grill and a rotisserie. But “there is no sous vide” or other high-tech kitchen equipment.
“It’s all based on simple preparation,” Pandel says. “Nothing is overcomplicated. It’s nice to be able to treat these ingredients the way the Italians do.”
And Italians are famed for the passion and time they put into their cooking. At Balena, Pandel says, “it’s all about scratch cooking — whether we are doing it here or somebody who can do it better is doing it for us.”
The restaurant employs a full-time baker, Peter Becker, who produces Balena’s fresh breads and handmade pizza dough. Yet Pandel purchases his cured meats from Chris Eley’s well-regarded Smooking Goose in Indianapolis and imports some of his cheeses from Italy.
“Some things we can’t do here, and that’s okay,” Pandel says. “There are some products you cannot trump. Parmigiano-Reggiano is what it is for a reason.”
Pandel practices locavorism, but in a modified way — something we’re seeing more and more as chefs acknowledge that they can’t always procure what they (and their diners) want within a 100-mile radius.
“There are just some things you can’t get in the Midwest,” Pandel says. “Artichokes don’t grow here. So we have to go to a farm in California.”
At the same time, he’s furthered relationships with local farmers and purveyors that he established during his tenure at The Bristol. Some farmers, for example, are now growing kale and escarole specifically for Balena.
“You name it, and they’re doing it for us,” Pandel says.
My friend Susan and I could have gone in a number of directions at Balena during our recent joint birthday outing. But we decided to blow past the charcuterie, cheese and Peter’s [non-complimentary] breads and head directly into starters.
Both long-time fans of Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, we were drawn to burrata from this legendary deli, which Pandel served with roasted beets and celery root ($14). The salad drew a flavorful pow from the simple addition of pickled red onion, fresh parsley and citrus vinaigrette.
Absolutely torn over Pandel’s pizza options, we selected a combo of mortadella, pistachio, red onion and mozzarella ($14). Pandel’s crust is both puffy and crispy, and it served as a perfect dipper for the pizza’s accompanying hot chile oil. Bologna-like mortadella was lightly charred, which added a welcome smokiness to the mix.
(Next time I’m going for Pandel’s signature lasagna pie with Bolognese sauce, ricotta and basil ($14) — which the chef religiously ate by the slice during his salad days in New York City, he says.)
Pasta proved another difficult choice — for all the right reasons. Ultimately, we shared ricotta ravioli with Swiss chard and brown butter sauce ($14). The delightfully handmade-looking pasta was doughy without being too heavy or stiff. And it provided a nice envelope for fresh, milky ricotta blended with richness-cutting Swiss chard — a terrific substitute for the ho-hum spinach that is traditionally featured in this dish.
Pulling from the entrees, Sue and I mated succulent grilled head-on prawns, juicy grapes, finger chiles and aioli ($19) with Pandel’s comforting polenta side ($6). Our server noted that pairing the shrimp and buttery polenta would create an “Italian-inspired” shrimp and grits, and indeed it did.
We begrudgingly stopped the clock here in order to save room for pastry chef Amanda Rockman’s desserts. Rockman presents a selection of gelati and sorbetti “composed sundaes,” along with a short list of classic Italian-style sweets (all $8).
Sweet dry meringue candy sticks tempered tart grapefruit and Aperol Italian ice. Pistachio gelato was enhanced with burnt-orange caramel, confit orange and chunks of pistachio-studded fudge nougat.
We almost passed on tiramisu, fearing it would be yet another tired rendition of this tired dessert. But a staffer relentlessly urged us to try it. Good thing we listened. Here, Rockman layers fluffy angel food-like cake and sweet cream and serves it with dark chocolate sauce, coffee cookie “streusel” and roasted pear.
“It’s a great riff on what’s a played-out classic,” Pandel says. “And she had the chutzpah to put it on the menu.”
1633 N. Halsted Street
Chicago, Illinois 60614