The Other Critics

Sula, Ruby Feel At Home At Balena Despite Some Misses

Strozzapreti with rabbit sugo at Balena.
Strozzapreti with rabbit sugo at Balena. Photo: Galdones Photography

It’s Balena week at the Reader, as Bristol Group and Boka Group’s new Italian restaurant is the subject of both Sula’s review and this week’s Key Ingredient, with Balena/Bristol pastry chef Amanda Rockman. The inevitable comparison is the other big pizza/pasta place that just opened, Nellcôte, and if Sula “may have liked the food a bit better at Nellcote,” he finds it “much easier to enjoy the good eating in the big, easygoing room at Balena,” praising the rustic, “unfussy preparations, even when prepared with high-end ingredients,” and also admiring the daring cocktail program “entirely based on the bitter herbal Italian liqueurs known as amari. It seems a risky move for this neighborhood, but the drinks, assigned placement on scale of bitterness from one to ten, are across-the-board approachable and still manage to be interesting.” [Reader]

Jeff Ruby at Chicago magazine also goes for an extended comparison between Nellcote and Balena, but he judges Balena to be the winner. He admires both pizzas and pastas at Nellcôte: “Crème fraîche clings to toothy taglioni with Champagne, oysters, and chives as if unwilling to part with even one precious noodle. I felt the same way.” But “the dry-aged Illinois beef rib eye would have been lovely if the runner hadn’t poured on France’s entire gross domestic product of truffle jus.” And service crosses the line from approachability to “codependency.”

Balena, on the other hand: “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.” That despite the fact that as with Sula, he finds executional errors (a pizza is lukewarm by the time it hits the table) but doesn’t seem to mind. Ruby’s highest praise is for the non-pasta entrees: “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.” [Chicago]

At the Tribune, Kay Stepkin looks at the vegetarian options in the Loop at Russian Tea Time. Eastern European doesn’t exactly conjure up a wide range of vegetarian choices, but she praises items like the “hot platter of stuffed eggplant, vegetable stuffed bell pepper and three stews — mung bean, chickpea and onion, vegetable layered — and rice pilaf. Each sample explodes with a distinct spice. But transfer the samples to your plate quickly: Once sauces mix together on the platter, the tastes meld.” [Tribune]

Sula, Ruby Feel At Home At Balena Despite Some Misses