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Balsan and Ria at the Elysian Hotel: Dining Out restaurant reviews

The Inn Crowd: Two shiny spots in the Elysian Hotel blast onto the Gold Coast—one buzzing, the other stunning

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Apples, sablé Breton, “bandaged” Cheddar, and herb salad from Ria
Ria’s apples, sablé Breton, “bandaged” Cheddar, and herb salad

We’ve all accepted that hotel restaurants don’t have to be stodgy fossils, so it’s time to ask the next logical question: Can they be fun? All kinds of glowing adjectives could describe NoMI in the Park Hyatt and Avenues in the Peninsula, yet neither room strikes me as the kind of place you would go for a night of raging excitement. But on the Elysian’s third floor, across from the social Siberia that is Ria, there’s a party going on, and it involves raw oysters, cured meats, stiff drinks, and table-hopping. Welcome to Balsan, a sexy room that is as packed as Ria is vacant.

The long marble bar that dominates Balsan’s gold-toned space is threatening to devolve into a Gold Coast pickup hot spot—not that the looky-loos seated at nearby four-tops appear to mind. Nor does Jason McLeod’s team of 40 staffers, who run Ria and Balsan from one giant kitchen, juggling separate menus, china, and servers. “It’s actually a lot of fun,” says McLeod, a veteran of Four Seasons restaurants from Whistler to Emerald Bay. “We divided up the kitchen originally, but we decided to do it together.”

Perhaps they should have kept it divided. Balsan’s maddening unpredictability starts with the schizoid menu, which is equal parts harmless and audacious. Pizza rubs elbows with testa cakes; burgers and fries share ink with veal heart and headcheese. Food quality is also all over the place. You could luck into a melt-in-your-mouth boudin blanc made of pork and foie gras served on a pillowy bed of leeks, or you might fall victim to a depressing chocolate tart with a flavor so muted you forget it’s chocolate. Temperature problems cast a shadow over otherwise pleasant offerings such as a wood-grilled Margherita pizza with burrata and a creamy celeriac soup with bacon and pickled ramps. Your best bet, as far as I can tell, is to split some charcuterie, followed by a juicy, garlicky whole roasted chicken with oven-roasted Brussels sprouts, lardons, and tangy pearl onions, then a side of silky buttermilk grits. And—try not to snicker—order two Paris-Brests. The magnificent wheel of choux pastry stuffed with praline cream and caramelized hazelnut crisp is simply too good to share.

As at Ria, most of Balsan’s servers are young and eager. On one visit, everyone we came into contact with was dialed in, smart, and all-around terrific. On another, our waiter was so detached that he had one foot in the dining room and the other in some house party in West Town. That’s the trouble with fun: It’s unreliable.
 

THE SKINNY

BALSAN
Elysian Hotel, 11 E. Walton St.; 312-646-1400
WHINE Balsan has to do something about those long, awkward runners on tables. They’re an accident waiting to happen in someone’s lap. TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) Lunch $35 to $40; dinner $45 to $50 HOURS Breakfast, lunch, dinner daily. Brunch Saturday and Sunday

 

RIA
Elysian Hotel, 11 E. Walton St.; 312-880-4400
FYI When the waitress carts over a giant wheel of Comté that had been aged 36 months in a cave, say yes. TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) $65 to $75 HOURS Dinner Tuesday through Saturday

 

Photograph: Anna Knott

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