Do this tonight: Contemporary Italian at Balena

balena-chicago-date-2Continuing on the culinary journey of visiting all 20 of Chicago Magazine’s list of 2012’s best new restaurants, I tried Balena recently. It’s not hard to succeed at Italian comfort food, but the fare at Balena has a contemporary twist in nearly every dish that leaves the kitchen, and its very own Chris Pandel was named Eater’s chef of the year. The decor is nothing short of stunning; it feels like the inside of a tree house that Donald Trump might inhabit.

As nearly all new restaurants in Chicago do, Balena’s dishes are served tasting-menu style. I strongly recommend splitting a salad like the Tuscan kale Caesar with anchovies (my first taste of the small fishes: success) and a pizza. We were daring and tried the cauliflower pizza with garlic, which I would not lead anyone to. Rather, try the more traditional spicy sausage, which our server advised to rebellious ears. The pasta dishes are a bit overpriced for their size, but you must try at least one. We loved the pork ragu orecchiette, and I could’ve easily had the whole thing to myself.

If ordering wine by the glass from their vast collection, ask to try two if you can’t decide. And whatever you do, don’t skip dessert. New year’s resolutions be damned — order two. We were quite visibly drooling over the Chinotto Float, a tall, narrow glass of Chai gelato, charred dates and rum finished with a spiraly straw, which we bypassed with aggressive spoons like Alcatraz prisoners.

You’ll definitely need reservations. Call 312-867-3888 or book through OpenTable.

If you can time it right, the Steppenwolf Theatre is located across the street and offers shows every night but Monday.

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