A poor meal at Balena left me thinking that either the chef’s idea of what tastes good is widely different from mine, or the kitchen is having quality control problems in these opening weeks.
Pastas were the worst of the lot. Canestri - small, hanging-basket-shaped ridged pasta that I was excited to see - were served with what the menu called a duck liver ragu. I disagree with that nomenclature, as what ended up in the bowl were too-large pieces of dried out liver, not anything resembling pasta sauce. The beauty of canestri lies in their great ability to absorb and hold sauces, making every bite a delicious balance of whatever the dish contains. That beauty was completely lost by serving these shapes with big chunks instead of a cohesive ragu. Taglioline nero – flat, black noodles – were served with what the menu advertised as sea urchin, crab and chile. What the menu didn’t say was that the tastes of those things would be completely obliterated by a crazy-heavy hand with lemon juice. I like acidic food, but this was pucker-worthy sour. A major failure.
Our pizza fared slightly better on account of very good tomato sauce, but the crust was something of a disaster. It was way overcooked and dry, with the sturdy texture of cardboard packing material. As one of my dining companions pointed out, there was also a thick layer of raw flour that must have been used to line the peel, creating an unpleasant, chalky eating experience.
The one main-course-like thing we tried - a couple of wet-roasted duck legs served with dried figs and amaro – was decent but uninteresting. The duck supposedly had some kind of glaze, though I didn’t notice anything particularly tasty about the skin. The dried figs were fine, though probably bitter enough on their own that they did not benefit from the splash of barely reduced, amaro-infused thin liquid saucing the plate. Ultimately, this was little more than a nicely cooked duck leg that most people can do pretty easily at home.
Best of the evening were two selections from the appetizer section. Seafood salad had a variety of cold shellfish that were fresh and tasty, if not particularly unique or exciting. They had just a bit of grit. The smoked mackerel dish – with nice smoke penetration and a very luscious texture – was my favorite of the night. It had crunchy breadcrumbs and a soft-cooked egg. Very tasty, though it would have benefitted from some capers or lemon or sour cream – something with acid. I should have stolen a tiny spoonful of sauce from that crazy taglioline.
Because I’ve usually liked the food at The Bristol, I’m inclined to think that Chef Pandel, now at Balena, will work some of these problems out soon. Then again, Balena is a much bigger place and perhaps his forte does not lie in the quality-control measures required to serve dinner to these kinds of masses. Time will tell.
(note - photos all courtesy of Charlotte Tan)
1633 N. Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60614