Monday, March 25, 2013


Location: 1633 N Halsted
Cost: About $50 per person

It's funny to think back to when small plates were a rare thing to come by. You used to pick up this diverse looking menu of interesting dishes at low prices and think, let's get a bunch of everything. Now you can hardly go somewhere without the waiter asking you if you need an explanation on how to order. I remember thinking that Quartino was this wildly inventive place for serving little bits of risotto at a time, but now the thrill is gone. Diatribe aside, I had some more small plate Italian food with my parents the other night at Balena.

Balena moved in where Landmark used to be on Halsted across from the Steppenwolf Theater. So it's basically right around the corner from my apartment. The restaurant itself is huge, but you'll still need a reservation most nights. The place is bustling, but we got this rather quiet table in the back. If you need to drive, parking isn't that tough, but the red line and plenty of buses go right by there.

Our waiter was helpful with the menu, but we had to ask for things like water refills and clean silverware on multiple occasions. The bus boys were impressive though, stacking up more plates at a time than the guy at El Toro. Cost wise, it's what you'd expect. Most small plates of pasta and 12'' pizzas run around $16 while the protein based dishes are in the low 20's.

The Food
Our first course included the Kale Caesar Salad, the Focaccia Bread, and the Cheese Platter. The caesar had the rough texture of kale with a heavy load of sardines (big points with the Pearl family). It was lightly dressed and well put together. The focaccia bread was mostly an extra surface for the cheese platter, but on it's own it was crusty with a soft center and heavy on the herbs. The cheese platter was a cheese platter. I'm never sure how much credit to give a place for arranging cheese.

The Assorted Cheeses

 The Kale Caesar Salad

 The Herb Focaccia Bread

After that, we got the Hen Egg Tajarin with Sage and Brown Butter and the Spicy Sausage Pizza. The pasta was very "yolky" and rich despite the buttery sauce. It was light and had an intriguingly chewy texture. The pizza had a snap to the crust and a decent burn. The sausage packed some heat too. The sauce had a mild sweetness that brought everything together nicely.

The Hen Egg Tajarin

 The Sausage and Red Onion Pizza

For dessert we went with the Affogato and the Pistachio Gelati. The affogato was a plate of chocolate espresso and donuts. The donuts were piping hot, soft as could be, and doused in sugar. When we dipped it in the chocolate espresso mixture they soaked up every last drop. The gelati had a pleasant orange syrup and marshmallows stuffed with pistachios. As most desserts go with my family, we weren't hungry when they got there, but they didn't last for more than five minutes.

 The Affogato

 The Pistachio Gelati

Don't take my disenfranchisement with small plate food as a slight to Balena. Each plate was interesting and well executed. With the pizza, pasta, and dessert options, I don't think you can go wrong. I'm giving them 4.5 out of 5 Pearls.

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