On Saturday night, Landmark Grill + Lounge, the Boka Restaurant Group's second project, which opened six years ago following the success of Boka, served its last meal. Partners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz closed the restaurant and will open Balena, a rustic Italian spot, later this fall in partnership with the team behind The Bristol: John Ross, Phil Walters and chef Chris Pandel.
"We've wanted to do this concept for a while and it's a perfect space for it," Ross said. "We'd been looking for a long time for a space. As we talked about the concept with Kevin and Rob, it all happened quickly." Ross explained that Boehm and Katz, who have been supporters of the Bristol since it opened three years ago, loved the Balena concept and offered up the Landmark space. That was about a month ago and since then, Ross said, the project has snowballed. The relationship is an equal partnership, but the Bristol team will be the managing partners on premise, Ross said.
Balena, which means whale in Italian but also is slang for "fat guy," will see Pandel as executive chef working in the new kitchen, and Bristol pastry chef Amanda Rockman, will oversee the pastry programs at both restaurants.
"I've wanted to do Italian for a long time. It's strikes a chord with me," Pandel said. "We'll still bring in whole animals and butcher them in house. [The menu] is based on simple food made from scratch—homemade pastas, good pizza dough— and hopefully we'll use local grains to make the pizza and pasta. It'll be similar in philosophy to the Bristol."
The affordable menu (Ross said they're targeting a $38 check average per diner, including drinks) will have various antipasti (for example, kale panzanella with imported sardines; tuna conserva with heirloom tomato and roasted artichokes); bruschetta (duck with cherries marinated in elderflower vinegar and sugar); unique housemade pastas (like bigoli with a simple pomodoro sauce); pizzas ranging from classic margherita to artisan sopressata sourced locally; rotisserie or whole-roasted wood-fired meats like goat, lamb and pig; whole-roasted fish and more. Desserts will likely feature housemade gelato, but Rockman has just started working on the menu. Shortly after the restaurant gets up and running smoothly, Balena will start a local pizza delivery service.
Walters and Bristol mixologist Debbi Peek will create a cocktail program rooted in Italian bitters and will have many aperitifs and digestifs; Walters will source good-value wines from throughout Italy for the wine list. Ross said Boka Group mixologist Benjamin Schiller will also likely consult on the cocktail program.
The restaurant, which will seat up to around 200 people including private dining spaces, will go through a transformation. The design, being done by Karen Herold of 555 International, which did the Girl & The Goat, GT Fish & Oyster and Perennial Virant, is still being finalized, but will have a lot of wood, brick and more natural light throughout. The current bar and wood-burning oven will move to different locations. And the space's facade will be built out more toward the street and have a lot of glass to give it somewhat of a greenhouse feel, Ross said.
As for the Bristol, Pandel will still serve as exec chef and partner, but Andrew Gietzen, who currently works the line with Pandel, will be named chef de cuisine. And for anyone who has had to endure lengthy wait times to be seated at the Bristol, rest easy: Balena will take reservations.
· Balena announcement video [You Tube]