"Good restaurant?" he asked, jerking his head toward the door. I nodded enthusiastically.
And in that split-second, I fear I gave Balena, which opened two months ago, insufficient praise. Yes, the pizzas are terrific, tantalizingly thin but with puffy, oil-glossed, satisfyingly chewy edges. I could eat the spicy-sausage version, or the mortadella-pistachio-onion combo, every day.
But the pastas are sensational too. And the desserts — dear Lord, the desserts.
The carbo-centric trio devising all this goodness consists of chef Chris Pandel and pastry chef Amanda Rockman (who also head up the kitchen at The Bristol) and Peter Becker, previously of the Peninsula Chicago and Charlie Trotter's.
Becker runs the restaurant's bread program, which includes the doughs that go into those terrific pizzas and pastas. But your first exposure to his work will likely be "Peter's bread," a $6 basket that includes a half-dozen breads (including a killer lemon-pepper challah), accompanied by olive oil, lemon marmalade and whipped ricotta. There also are nicely curated cheese and salumi assortments available, or you can get all three (at a nice discount) by ordering the Balena platter. The only danger is that the platter might leave you too sated to continue.
Pastas dazzle. The ribbonlike tajarin, topped with pork ragu, oozes rusticity, as do the olives, braised rabbit and fried rosemary that grace twisty strozzapreti (which, sadly, has left the menu). The knockout composition is the thin tagliolini nero, which has a nice, assertive chew but is more delicate than its dark, squid-ink color would suggest. Tossed with butter, mint and serrano peppers (the heat level is mild) and topped with sweet-salty crabmeat and sweet-creamy sea urchin, this dish delivers balanced complexity in every bite, and I love the look of the pale-white crab and soft-orange urchin against the black-pasta background.
Yes, there is more to Balena than bread alone. There are meaty hunks of charred quail with hazelnuts, placed over hazelnut-butter-drizzled escarole; and a lovely composition of chilled asparagus with chopped egg and goat cheese. Burrata cheese from Zingerman's in Michigan matches seamlessly with roasted beets and celery root, though the dish needs an assertive accent. A crudo of lightly smoked mackerel is not for the faint of heart — mackerel is an oil-heavy fish — but matched to a soft-cooked egg, held in place by a nurturing garlic aioli, it's practically comfort food.
The grilled and rotisserie selection is small, but there are treats, such as very good salt-and-pepper chicken thighs over watercress salad. The pork chop scaloppini gets great support from a perfectly dressed arugula-lemon salad, and a special of suckling pig with salsa verde and pickled ramps showed promise, but with both dishes, the pork was unevenly cooked, extremely underdone in spots.
Desserts are created by Amanda Rockman, whose compositions are so beguiling she might consider changing her name to Amanda Rockstar. Highlighting her 10-item list are the composed sundaes, which offer thoughtful combinations and absolutely pure flavors. Super-dense chocolate gelato dressed with sea salt and olive oil is superb, but it's the dense chocolate flavor that sells it. Pistachio gelato comes with cubes of pistachio nougat, balanced with orange and burnt-orange caramel. My favorite would have to be the blueberry, a virtual pie-in-a-glass combining blueberry gelato and compote, a bit of lemon sorbetto, crumbled dough (for that pie-shell flavor) and a lattice-shaped Linzer tuile.
More classic desserts include affogato, to which Rockman appends two cinnamon-dusted doughnuts, one of those why-haven't-I-seen-this-before touches, and an updated tiramisu that adds crunchy/nutty coffee streusel and espresso-roasted pear to an otherwise traditional rendering. The "coeur de la creme" vanilla semifreddo comes with a sweet take on panzanella, tossing strawberries and poached rhubarb with bread cubes cooked with so much butter and sugar they're like nuggets of toffee.
Balena is a joint venture between the Bristol team (John Ross and Phillip Walters, along with Pandel and Rockman) and the Boka Group (Kevin Boehm, Rob Katz), which operates Boka, Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster and Perennial Virant. Balena may be more a second Bristol than it is a fifth Boka; all I know is that these guys haven't missed yet.
Pizza-and-pasta restaurants are not places one goes in search of imagination, but Balena is the delirious exception. If you're cutting carbs, steer clear of Balena. But it's your loss.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
1633 N. Halsted St.; 312-867-3888; balenachicago.com
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday