Pollack’s Dinner at Balsan in 82 Words

Ethereal. Shockingly creative and delicious. Soft-boiled hen egg with wild mushrooms and chicken liver explodes with flavor then soothes with warm, silky textures; medium-rare duck breast melts in your mouth; Paris-Brest sets a new standard for cream-puff pastry. Open for exactly one week, Balsan (Elysian Hotel Chicago, 11 E. Walton St.; 312-646-1400) has its act together and is already a contender for the best new restaurant of the year. Caveat: I’m saying that without having tried its upscale sib next door, Ria.

Puppy Love

In January, Lou Goldhaber, a marketer at Relay Worldwide, plans to open a 100-seat Chicago franchise of Leo’s Coney Island (3455 N. Southport Ave.), a 37-year-old Detroit hot dog diner with 40 outposts in Michigan. (For the uninitiated, a Coney is a Motown-born beef-casing hot dog with chili, mustard, and diced onions on a steamed bun.) “Basically, so many Detroiters have migrated to Chicago that people have waited 15 years to have a Coney in their [adopted] hometown,” says Goldhaber. “We want to take the magic that people had growing up in Michigan and try to re-create it here.” Are Chicagoans as excited as Goldhaber implies? Someone must be. A Facebook group called “Chicago Loves Leo’s Coney Island” already has 1,108 members.

Six Questions for Tony D’Alessandro

D’Alessandro, who survived Gordon Ramsay’s TV show Hell’s Kitchen, is now a partner at Big & Little’s (939 N. Orleans St.; 312-943-0000), a “gourmet fast-food” spot.

D: Was your Hell’s Kitchen experience the springboard for Big & Little’s?
TD: Oh, I always wanted to open my own place. I love to cook. My partner [Gary Strauss] is my best friend from grammar school. We grew up in the city.

D: Does he cook, too?
TD: I’m showing him how to cook. I could teach anybody how to cook. I’m cooking while we are talking. I hope my customer doesn’t get mad. I don’t think she will.

D: When did you open?
TD: The end of October. We saw a sign that said the space was for rent. It was very affordable. We cleaned up. We painted. We built the 18-foot bar. We did everything ourselves. We went to Home Depot five times a day. Lived there for two and a half months.

D: What can you tell us about your food?
TD: It’s like going to a gourmet restaurant, but you pay prices of a fast-food place. All our fish is fresh; our burger meat is never frozen. French fries are hand cut every morning. We buy our groceries in the morning. I do stuff like crab tostada, a squid taco. Fish and chips. I do homemade chili and serve it with a bag of Fritos for $5. I will do anything anyone asks for, as long as I have the ingredients.

D: Who are your customers?
TD: A lot of kids from Walter Payton High School come here on their lunch break; they love the hamburger with the fried egg on it. They told us they are lucky. They consider this a high-end restaurant. Other people come in and say, “Your prices are too low.” We don’t need to rip anyone off. We want to make everybody happy and feel good about themselves after they eat.

D: And the name of the place?
TD: I’m really little and my partner is really big.  

He Said It

“I am staying open. Restructuring my note with the bank. Business is as good as I can ask for, given the times. I’ve been here ten years and hope to be here at least another ten—until my kids are old enough to decide whether they want to take it.” –Joe Doppes, owner of Old Town’s Bistrot Margot (1437 N. Wells St.; 312-587-3660), which Crain’s reported was facing foreclosure earlier this week.

The Obama Stimulus

Nagoya Japanese Seafood Buffet (804 S. Route 59, Naperville; 630-637-8881), a massive all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant slated to open in January, is part of an upstart franchise whose only current location is in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The reason for advancing into the Chicago market? “It is still growing, and you have a president from Chicago,” says John Peters, the restaurant’s coordinator. “When you have a president from a state, that state will grow. He will put money into his city.” Peters describes Nagoya’s concept as “one long table, about a mile long, and you take whatever you want. We have steaks, scallops, sashimi, snow crab legs, fresh oysters, 40 to 50 kinds of sushi. Fresh fish every day. For someone who loves sushi, you cannot beat this deal.” Three more suburban locations are on the way.

Things to Do

  1. Go see a movie at the South Loop’s new ShowPlace ICON TheatreSM (what a mouthful) opening on December 18th at 150 W. Roosevelt Rd., then sip a cocktail and take in the skyline views at Jerry Kleiner’s Lobby Lounge afterward.
  2. Get free mini cheeseburgers between 5 and 6 p.m. on December 21st in the bar of any Morton’s location in Chicagoland.
  3. Go to www.Restaurant.com/FeedItForward and give a free $10 Restaurant.com gift certificate to as many as 30 different people every day until Christmas. We’re not sure how it works either, but a bunch of local restaurants are participating.

Dot Dot Dot . . .

An outpost of Gibsons Steakhouse is planned for May at Oakbrook Center in Oak Brook; the 200-seat restaurant will include outdoor fire pits for sitting around on chilly evenings. . . . Congratulations to The Bristol (2152 N. Damen Ave.; 773-862-5555), which made GQ’s list of the ten best new restaurants of the year. . . . Despite reports that the Hotel Burnham is in foreclosure, the Kimpton Group will continue to run the hotel, and Atwood Café will remain open. . . . Epic (112 W. Hubbard St.; 312-222-4940), Stephen Wambach’s ambitious contemporary American spot, opened this week in River North. . . . Also this week, Shawn McClain (Spring) opened Sage—his first restaurant outside of Chicago—in Las Vegas. . . . Park Place (6733 N. Olmsted St.; 773-631-8100), a relaxed American restaurant from Ala Carte Entertainment, has opened next to Moretti’s in Edison Park. . . . Post-Eivissa, Dudley Nieto is back at San Gabriel Mexican Cafe (2535 Waukegan Rd., Bannockburn; 847-940-0200). “The owners are my friends,” says Nieto. “I have worked for them off and on for many years.”