The owners of Balena wished for a comeback after the 2017 fire tore through the Lincoln Park restaurant, but there won’t be one. After years of negotiating with insurance adjusters and exhausting the options, the Italian restaurant — a collaboration between Boka Restaurant and B. Hospitality groups — is officially gone for good at 1633 N. Halsted Street.
Boka will hold remembrance dinners for Balena through November at Dutch & Doc’s. Several of Balena’s signature dishes like taglioni nero with sea urchin and crab, plus lemon kale orecchiette will be available from Wednesday through Sunday nights starting on November 1 to November 24. Reservations are available at the link or via OpenTable.
Former Balena chef Chris Pandel said the pop-up will bring him closure.
“This is the farewell tour,” Pandel said. “One last whirl.”
Pandel said ownership just couldn’t settle on a dollar amount with the insurance company to rebuild the space properly. Pandel said they came to the final realization it wasn’t going to reopen about three weeks ago.
The space is full of sentimentality for Boka. Until 2011, it housed Boka’s Landmark Grill & Lounge, which was more bar than restaurant. The company’s flagship namesake sits a few doors north. For Balena, ownership brought in Pandel who made the Bristol in Bucktown one of the city’s best neighborhood restaurants. Pandel dazzled diners with elegant pastas and rustic Italian fare.
Now eight years later, Pandel has overseen the menus at three Boka restaurants: Swift & Sons and Cira in Fulton Market, and Dutch & Doc’s across from Wrigley Field. For the last dance, Pandel’s brought together two key members of his kitchen staff. Joe Frillman is doing his best to keep Balena’s spirit alive in Logan Square with his brand of Midwestern pastas at Daisies. Tony Quartaro was the executive chef at B. Hospitality’s Formento’s in West Loop. He’s now the executive chef at Limelight Catering. Both will return to team-up with Pandel.
“I’m more than looking forward to it,” Pandel said. “I miss cooking that food, I can’t wait.”
Pandel said he was getting a little emotional cooking up old Balena dishes, revisiting recipes he hasn’t made since the fire. While practicing for the pop-up he began remembering the smiles of Balena customers. Pandel said he hasn’t stepped inside the Balena site since the day after the fire. When it opened in 2012, Pandel said it broke ground because it wasn’t an Italian-American restaurant. He described it as a regional Italian restaurant through the lens of a Midwesterner. The pizza, with few ingredients layered on a puffy crust that came with a thin center, wasn’t like the deep dish, Neapolitan, or the tavern-style pies Chicagoans were used to eating. The wine program and amaro selection were also innovative, Pandel added.
Since the fire, Pandel has kept busy cooking at Dutch & Doc’s and Cira, a restaurant that opened this year in on the ground floor of the Hoxton hotel. It was time to move forward. Pandel didn’t know what would happen to the Balena space other than Boka and B. Hospitality are walking away.
“I’m just grateful for the opportunity to bring it back for a couple weeks and spend some time cooking the food that I personally enjoy cooking,” Pandel said.