Being a harsh critic shortly after a new opening is akin to punishing a puppy for stumbling over its massive paws. Had I written up mean things about Balena when we first went in 2012, I would now be forced to print my words on 30lb. linen paper and let you watch me eat them. Round 2 was exceptional.
In my long and lovely history of eating to excess, “have you dined with us before?” has been the most consistent opener. But at Balena they open with: “What time is your show tonight?” and it so amused me that I wished the title of this piece could be “Dinner and Show.” Why no “a?” you’ll see. Balena’s proximity to Steppenwolf so highly correlates the two that the waiters themselves assume that if a show is playing, their patrons are watching and they had better get them out in time. And were we glad that they got us out to see this one. But first the food.
While awaiting the female’s arrival, a conspicuous subset of the menu caught the eye: the vermouth tasting. It was there the last time but perhaps my brain had simply lacked the frequency on which it could receive the broadcast. I mean, come on…a VERMOUTH TASTING? Since I was 15 years old I had considered the sight of vermouth from across the room as the perfect amount in a martini. But our server patiently explained that that was all because the vermouth in “the kinds of bars we went to” had all “turned” long ago due to its sparse usage and for this reason tasted like an Arizona sandstorm. He implored that I would need to trust him Omakase style. I did. And I am glad I did. And I wish you would too.
Since I must complain a little, I will do so about the scallops. The plural is used loosely. Yes there are two. But just two. And for the price of US$27, a grotesque assault on the pocketbook of the working middle class. The rest of the meal was shockingly well-priced for what one gets considering memories of 2012. Balena learned its lesson. I am proud.
The margherita pizza was much larger than we expected despite being warned that it would be larger than we expected. So…let us warn you to expect it to be larger than you expect it to be even after being warned that it would be larger…gawd. Let us stop before we find a linguistic wormhole. I shall say no more about the pizza. Except that it’s really good.
The show? Russian Transport at the Steppenwolf. I found the topic and the accents to be hilarious. Many didn’t. Obviously, the subject matter underlines the worst possible case in immigration where the transports seem to have a knack for hopping out of the frying pan and directly into the third circle of the Inferno (which is gluttony since you must ask), but, as most things, dealing with the outliers simply makes for better television. And stagecraft.
I found the show amusing for many reasons, not the least of which is because of having grown up in a household where the females all sport the same bizarre shade of purple on their domes as though they all conspire every week to cook up a giant batch of borscht and then dive headfirst into the beet scraps thereby getting done the “cooking” and saving money with the colorist. Russian women are nothing if not industrious.
Anyway, you should see the show. Or any show. But before you do, take care to eat at Balena, skip the scallops but do get the vermouth tasting. Just don’t get as many as I did or you’ll be stumbling over people going to the restroom. 6 times.