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Photograph: Erica Gannett
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The Bristol opened in September 2008, just as the economy bottomed out. It was a month before the Publican, a year before the Purple Pig. The Bucktown restaurant wasn’t the first to embrace fifth-quarter cuts of meat, small plates and communal tables. But in retrospect, its opening heralded the mainstreaming of a certain type of dining: tablecloth-less but chef-driven, scrappy but serious. It also heralded the arrival of a chef few had heard of: Chris Pandel, a protégé of Rick Tramonto.

The Bristol was—and remains—a very fine place to eat, but in my experience, it was never an especially easy or comfortable one. It took no reservations, and on weekends, waits could be tremendous. (It’s now on OpenTable.) Much of the menu was made up of specials, and it was a given that most would sell out before the end of the night. And the chairs were the type you would soon start to see everywhere, lightweight and metal.

I was thinking about those utilitarian chairs during one of my meals at Balena, Pandel’s second restaurant, which is operated by the Bristol’s owners and co-owned by the BOKA group (i.e., Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz), which now boasts chefs Paul Virant (Perennial Virant), Giuseppe Tentori (GT Fish & OysterBoka) and Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat). I was seated on a banquette on the second floor of Balena. It was a quiet Wednesday; the tables on both sides of me were empty. There was a particular leisure to being there. Maybe it was the fact that I felt reprieved after my last couple of months of meals (Tavernita,RPMNellcôte), which have been set to a soundtrack more appropriate for a Spinning class. Maybe it was the space (formerly Landmark), remodeled by 555 International’s Karen Herold, whose painted tiles, wood ceiling slats and rich leather emanate warmth. Whatever it was, I felt unusually comfortable. Given the opportunity, I’m pretty sure I would have slept on that banquette.

Except for one thing, which made me terribly ill at ease: Everyone in the restaurant knew who I was, to the extent that Katz practically sprinted over and exclaimed, “You can’t possibly be reviewing us!” And so, in preparation for my second visit, I spent considerable time at Wigs and Plus and at the makeup counter at Macy’s. I returned in disguise on a packed Friday night and was seated as a walk-in at one of the high-top tables. The service wasn’t atrocious, but it was definitely M.I.A.: After taking our food order, the server pretty much disappeared, which probably explains why our main courses were sent out while we were still “enjoying” (is this really any better than “working on”?) our starters, or why 20 minutes after the cocktails were cleared, we had to flag someone down to order a glass of wine.

Not to be blasé, but as far as service in a month-old restaurant goes, I’ve had considerably worse. And with a restaurant that seems to be overflowing with ambition, I’m surprised and pleased that things are going as well as they are. On cocktails, there’s Debbi Peek, whose amaro-heavy offerings are vast. They’re ranked on a bitterness scale from 1–10: I liked the citrusy Montenegro (ranked a 6), but I struggled with the Francesco (a 5), which weighed heavily on the palate. On the lighter end, I was surprised to favor the fizzy Strawberry (the least bitter at 1, and the only one made with vodka) over both the flat and overdiluted Americano (5) and the Manlino (3), whose flavor profile seemed closest to lemonade. Despite that unevenness, the scope and versatility of Peek’s drink program is such that I wouldn’t go back to Balena without ordering a cocktail.

Speaking of revisiting, I can’t remember the last restaurant I’ve so looked forward to returning to. I’m going back for the mackerel, smoked to impart a compelling meatiness and paired with a soft-cooked egg, bread crumbs and aioli. I couldn’t pass up the whole-roasted fish, crisp skin revealing moist flesh, topped with an inspired peanut gremolata that sets it apart from any competitor. The menu is more or less Italian, yet it somehow works that Pandel serves Korean-style short ribs, pounded thin and brilliantly played against strips of candied orange peel. The crust on the pizza has just the right chew, and the chili oil that comes with the mortadella pie should be required of every pizzeria. (If there’s a flaw in Pandel’s food, it’s that his palate leans acidic to a fault, a characteristic that threw both the lovingly made pastas— squid-ink tagliolinistrozzapreti with rabbit—and the oversalted head-on prawns off balance.) Whatever the dish, its portion is fairly generous, making it easy and natural to share.

Perhaps Amanda Rockman’s desserts anticipated this, with a wariness of how much bread, pizza and pasta diners will have consumed by the end of their meals. It’s not an unfounded concern and, for many, a simple sundae of beautifully churned gelato (pistachio with nougat and burnt-orange caramel is a standout) may be just the right ending. But I didn’t find as much personality in Rockman’s Balena desserts (a thin chocolate budino) as I do at the Bristol. That is, until the last one I tried: the tiramisu. It is to tiramisu what Rockman’s Basque cake at the Bristol is to pound cake: a reinvigoration of the genre, layers of light cake and cream and crumbles. It is a dessert so unlike the wet, rum-soaked original that it feels almost insulting to call it by its name. Can we all just agree to call it genius?

Venue name: Balena
Address: 1633 N Halsted St

Opening hours: Dinner
Transport: El stop: Red to North/Clybourn. Bus: 8, 9, 72, 132.
Price: Average main course: $22
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