First Look: Balena
When the Boka Restaurant Group announced the closing of Landmark last year, it wasn't because the restaurant was failing. In fact, Landmark had always seemed packed and chaotic—perhaps too much so. It's just that Landmark didn't seem to fit in the group's growing collection of chef-driven restaurants, which includes the original Boka restaurant, Girl & The Goat, GT Fish & Oyster, and Perennial Virant. But instead of simply finding a new chef for the project, they decided to partner with an entire restaurant team. That restaurant was The Bristol in Bucktown, one that happens to have a great chef, Chris Pandel, along with one of the best pastry chefs in town, Amanda Rockman, and one of the best mixologists, Debbi Peek.
The result of all this talent is Balena, a massive new Italian-inspired restaurant in Lincoln Park. Interestingly, Chris Pandel likes that "inspired" label, as he's the first to admit that he's never been to Italy. Instead, he related that he just wants to focus on creating delicious food with as many local products as he can find: "I love how they just leave the ingredients alone."
Loads of Italian restaurants talk about their brick ovens, and Balena certainly has a wood-burning one. But the restaurant also has a wood-burning grill and a conventional oven. The latter will actually be used to cook the pizzas, which at first seems odd, but makes sense after you realize that they aren't going for a Neapolitan-style crust. Instead, it's more of a good bread, sort of like Great Lake.
Balena officially opens to the public this week. We sat down with chef Chris Pandel to talk through a few of these dishes you'll soon be able to order. During the interview, so many dishes starting coming out that we had a hard time keeping them all straight. It's certainly a feast, but one that should give you a good sense of what Balena is all about. Click through the slideshow to check them out!