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Things are a little more grounded at Balena, the latest production from the Boka Restaurant Group (Perennial Virant, GT Fish & Oyster, Girl & the Goat). For one thing, the redo of the Landmark space across from Steppenwolf has a breezy, inclusive feel. It’s lofty, with a cathedral ceiling and stone floors, and when the double doors in front are open, it feels like a welcoming Italian barn. On one visit, my guest asked for decaffeinated tea, and the waitress offered to run up the street to Boka and fetch some. Then she did. “It’s good to have friendly neighbors,” she said.
It’s also good to have Chris Pandel in your kitchen; he brings the same agreeable style that he does to The Bristol. Balena, like Nellcôte, places a heavy emphasis on Italy’s flour-related arts. Obscure pasta preps, such as tajarin (a thin Piedmontese egg-dough noodle) and strozzapreti (which look like long rolled towels), achieve varying degrees of success. We didn’t care for the heavy-handed canestri, tough little ridged baskets interspersed with blunt hunks of duck liver and hazelnuts, but the chili-tinged orecchiette with kale and breadcrumbs got a satisfying shot of lemon. And the half a dozen pseudo-Neapolitan pizzas have potential, especially a tempting mortadella beast with sprinkles of sausage, red onion, and mozzarella on a layer of pistachio pesto. Ours came lukewarm, and it was still good.
The Balena, a $26 platter of cured meats, cheeses, and breads, is bound to become a pretheatre tradition. You’ll find yourself mixing and matching, say, a crazy-salty paprika-cured pork with an Oregonzola served atop a honeycomb and scooping both up with roasted garlic semolina bread. Don’t miss the Korean-inspired grilled short ribs with charred oranges and Calabrian chilies or the wonderful seafood salad of briny skate wing, octopus, and mussels tossed with golden raisins and popping with pine nuts and pomegranate seeds.
Once you move into the heavier stuff, Balena really kicks into gear. A crispy-tender glazed duck leg comes with figs so deliciously soaked in amaro someone ought to call them a cab, and a lovely roasted loup de mer for two gets pampered with a peanut gremolata with orange, lemon, and lime zests. It’s as good as it sounds.
Amanda Rockman’s desserts bounce between crowd pleasers (affogato cinnamon doughnuts, a vanilla gelato sundae) and group orgasms like an ultrasmooth chocolate budino that mingles amaro, cocoa nibs, and fior di latte mozzarella. The vision at Balena is hardly new, but the place is so self-assured and pleasant—and staffed by people you could imagine sitting down and eating with you—that originality is beside the point. If Nellcôte is still searching for a way to achieve its grand ambitions, Balena is already there.
Photograph: Anna Knott
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