Balena: Italian for OMG

August 11, 2012

The one time of year (other than Chicago Restaurant Week) I go all out when it comes to dining, is my birthday. Since my birthday fell on a weekday this year, I was able to make a reservation at a Boka Restaurant Group newbie, Balena. Many people I talked to had never heard of Balena, however I can guarantee this restaurant will become familiar to many people in the months ahead. The day after I dined at Balena, Bon Appetit named them to their list of 50 Best New Restaurants for 2012!

The BF and I arrived on a Tuesday evening to the Lincoln Park eatery and were immediately greeted by the hostess. I was given a birthday card that was signed by everyone on the staff. Talk. about. service. It was a simple yet unbelievably personal touch that started our evening on the right note.

Birthday Card from Balena Staff
As we were led to our upstairs table, we walked through the open restaurant which features wooden beams, exposed brick and skylights throughout. It was so classy and rustic at the same time--truly a unique setting.

My Amazing Date
We were seated in a window half-booth next to another party. I have to admit I felt a bit on top of the party next to me, but the restaurant was pretty packed everywhere.

Balena is known for their cocktail list which features amari, an Italian liqueur. Each cocktail on the menu is ranked on a bitterness scale from 1-10 where 1 is the least bitter and 10 is the most bitter.

Full Dinner Menu
Cocktail & Wine List
We decided we prefered red wine with our meal so we opted for a featured bottle of cabernet sauvignon. The Castello di Volpaia “Prelius” Cabernet Sauvignon was from Tuscany and we chose it based on our server's description of it as less tannic than many wines of this variety. The wine was so smooth and easy-to-drink, I probably could have had an entire bottle myself!

Castello di Volpaia “Prelius” Cabernet Sauvignon
Castello di Volpaia “Prelius” Cabernet Sauvignon
From reading several other reviews of Balena before our reservation, I knew that I had to try their homemade bread basket. Sure, it may be a little ridiculous to pay for bread at an Italian restaurant, but let me tell you, it was well worth it!

The bread basket featured five different breads including a carrot multigrain, tomato crostini, sage and lavender roll, chocolate cherry sourdough and nigella grissini, aka a crunchy breadstick.The breads were accompanied by a trio of sauces including a gazpacho, caramelized onions, and a peach-vinegar sauce. The breads were ridiculously delicious, especially the chocolate cherry which I could smell immediately upon the bread's arrival. Each piece was hearty, crusty and flavorful.

Peter's Bread Basket
Admittedly, we were pretty full from the bread course alone, so we decided to split two plates for our main course. The dishes at Balena are definitely enough for one person, but the pasta dishes are really a size meant for sharing. I would recommend sharing several dishes, especially if you are with a larger group.

Our first entree was the Tagliolini Nero, a squid ink pasta topped with chunks of crab, sea urchin and a touch of chili. I had only had squid ink pasta once before and I was really happy I tried it again. It was easy to tell the pasta was homemade simply by its texture. The al dente noodles were delicious, however, very salty. The citrus from the lemon sauce helped cut some of that saltiness but it was still slightly unpleasant. However, I was so pleased with the portion and freshness of the crab meat that I kept eating it. The sea urchin had a very creamy texture to it and was an interesting addition.

Tagliolini Nero
The second plate we tried was a pizza with heirloom tomatoes, mozzarella, roasted garlic and olive oil. I let the BF pick this one and I was a little worried it would be too plain. I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how much flavor was packed into this amazing pie. From the flaky crust, to the creamy cheeses, I couldn't have been happier with his selection. The orange-hued tomatoes had a texture similar to a grilled peach which I found unique and perfect with the tanginess of the cheeses.

Heirloom Tomato Pizza
Since we were celebrating my birth, it was only fitting we end the evening with my favorite course, dessert! Balena has a list of classic desserts including tiramisu, but they also have a list of composed sundaes featuring a variety of toppings and flavors of gelato.

Dessert Menu
I decided to try the vanilla sundae with chocolate chip cookies, cookie dough and malt chocolate sauce. If you like cookie dough, you will love this sundae! The vanilla gelato was smooth and creamy and bite after bite included huge chunks of delicious cookie dough. If I wasn't so stuffed at this point, I would have licked the glass clean!

Vanilla Gelati Sundae
Our experience at Balena was memorable from start to finish. They have successfully paired flavorful Italian cuisine with a trendy yet warm atmosphere and flawless service. The service at Balena was some of the best I've encountered. Before I could even think to ask, our water glasses were filled, wine was poured and tables were cleared. I would highly recommend a meal at Balena to anyone who is looking for Italian food in a not-so-ordinary setting. While a meal here does run a bit pricey, it is definitely worth the trip, especially when celebrating a special occasion.

Balena gets 5 stars for their impeccable customer service and service in general, their unique cocktail menu, amazing food and unbelievable ambiance!

Main Dining Room
1633 N. Halsted Street 
Chicago, IL 60614 

Balena on Urbanspoon


  1. This looks so so so good! Hope you had an amazing birthday and as always, thanks for sharing the great reviews of Chicago foods!

    Almost makes me want to move back there. :)

  2. Thank you so much Eliza! Glad to hear you enjoy reading them from across the country :)

  3. Wow!! What a great review, im really interested in trying this place sometime, everything sounds delicious, and 5 stars! thats something special. i wonder if i can just order the bread basket and sundae haha


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