Solid Rustic Italian @balenachicago

Balena – 1633 N Halsted Street, Chicago

So, I’m trying desperately to catch up on my backlog of restaurants to write about.  Since May, most of free time has been spent wedding planning and in May and June we went out to eat *a lot* because of the wedding planning and finishing up our kitchen remodel.  Thankfully, since we’ve returned, Sara and I have been a bit better about staying in and cooking, and hopefully I’ll be writing a bit about my kitchen exploits as well.  But I digress….

The main reason I wanted to keep this blog is so I could remember details about our meals – not just what we ate, but why we liked or disliked certain dishes – unfortunately, that gets harder when you’re writing about a meal a month or more after eating it.  But that being said, the quick weeknight meal at Balena was a pretty solid and memorable one.

We ordered pretty simply, and the menu at Balena definitely has numerous more adventerous and interesting choices than a tuscan kale salad and a plate of cacio e pepe.

Tuscan Kale Caesar

Tuscan Kale Caesar

Cacio e pepe

Cacio e pepe

But that’s what we got and it was solid.  The kale was fresh and sharp with the right amount of bitterness, and topped with a healthy dollop of fresh parmesan.

The Cacio e pepe is simple, but incredible.   The spaghetti has that perfect al dente texture that you can only get with fresh handmade pasta, and the balance of parmesan and black pepper was absolutely dead-on.   Add on the crispy bread crumbs that crisped up the textural element of the dish, and you have a dish that is simple in its ingredients with a subtle underlying complexity.

Hangar steak with wild greens and grilled trumpet mushrooms

Hangar steak with wild greens and grilled trumpet mushrooms

For an entree, we got the hangar steak – solid, well cooked to an almost perfect medium rare, but overall nothing special.  Dishes like this remind me why I tend to stray towards fresh pasta at places like this.

Balena’s a tough place to order for two as the menu makeup seems to be designed for a party of four or six, but you can still make it work for a couple.  That being said, there are plenty of solid choices – the pastas are definitely the highlight, but the focus on fresh greens and fresh pasta make it a solid Italian option.


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