The Vegetarian Option

Reviews of vegetarian dishes.

The Vegetarian Option: Balena

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[Photograph: Amber Gibson]

At Balena, the menu is meant for sharing. It can be nearly impossible to decide what to order when everything looks so delicious, so the more people you're dining with, the better. Between the starters, pizzas, and pastas, there are also plenty of vegetarian options.

A standard tomato, basil, and garlic bruschetta is not something I would normally order at a restaurant. But when I saw the spring pea bruschetta ($14) on the menu, I was intrigued. Instead of a thin crostini, this has a thick sourdough bread base. The bread is made in-house and grilled to order, so the charred bread brings out the sweetness in the pea purée.

Chef Chris Pandel poaches peas in a boullion with shallots, thyme, and olive oil until they are tender, and then purées them, seasoning them lightly with salt. A fluffy, housemade ricotta spread goes on the bread first, then the thick purée, and, finally, a handful of spring pea shoots top it all off, along with a touch of lemon juice and olive oil. This is one incredibly refreshing summer starter, and great finger food to munch on while you ponder what pizzas and pastas to order.

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The potato gnocchi ($17) with fava leaf pesto, pine nut, and pecorino romano is another vegetarian ode to spring. These miniature dumplings are incredibly fluffy inside, and it's easy to devour the whole bowl in a few bites. Fava leaf adds a subtle twist to traditional pesto, while the pint nuts and pecorino keep the flavors familiar. Any meat in this dish would be superfluous. Keeping it vegetarian places the focus squarely on the gnocchi and the pesto, as it should be.

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No matter how many carbs you consume, you must try dessert. A grapefruit sorbet ($9) with meringue, cinnamon, and Aperol granita is a light and refreshing way to finish your meal. I love how the tart grapefruit flavors link back to the grapefruit juice and bitters used in several of the amaro cocktails. I highly recommend the Pina no9 ($11) with Amaro Sibilla, Herradura Resposado tequila, Cointreau, grapefruit and sage—if you like grapefruit in the least.

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But if I were you, I would also try the dessert bruschetta ($9) with housemade nutella and Taggiasca olives. It's a bit of a misnomer, since the "nutella," is way better than the supermarket variety and more like a whipped chocolate mousse strewn with olive pieces. Thick grilled bread is served warm and drizzled with olive oil. You could use a knife to politely spread the buttery chocolate spread on your bread, or you could do as I do and just dunk the bread straight in. Since taking over for Amanda Rockman, this is one of Pastry Chef Rachel Brickel's first additions to the menu. With her ability to capture simple, rustic flavors and also compose more elaborate sundaes, I have no doubt that she'll fill the big shoes left by Rockman.

Balena

1633 North Halsted Street, Chicago, IL 60614(map)
312-867-3888
balenachicago.com‎

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