Veal heart. Testa cake. Housemade soppressata. This is food intended to be eaten by foodies and fellow chefs. The only problem is, this food is being served at Balsan, a restaurant hidden inside a luxe hotel smack dab in the Gold Coast. The Elysian might not have been at occupancy on my first visit after the holidays, but still, aside from our two-top, the only other diner in the place was Perennial chef Ryan Poli.
Balsan’s executive chef, Jason McLeod, is a hotel guy, with a résumé that includes San Diego’s Grand Del Mar Resort, Fairmont Chateau Whistler Resort in British Columbia and Four Seasons properties in Costa Rica, Miami and Toronto. Impressive on one level, but I’m willing to bet that a local chef like Poli took an interest in Balsan because of chef de cuisine Danny Grant, a former NoMI cook who also served as sous chef to Bruce Sherman at North Pond. McLeod also oversees Ria, the Elysian’s fine dining restaurant, so it would seem that Grant has the reins at Balsan.
Trouble is, dish after dish here came out swinging with potential but couldn’t quite get the K.O. thanks to lack of execution. That testa cake—pork headcheese formed into a crabcake-like disc with crispy seared edges—was clearly made from one tasty pig, but inedible bits of cartilage and hunks of chewy fat accounted for more of the thing than meaty goodness. Slices of two housemade salumi styles, a soppressata and a picante, couldn’t have been more different. The deep purplish-red rounds of picante held plenty of chile-spiked flavor and lingering notes of cumin, but the soppressata tasted like nothing more than chewy texture.
The pattern continued with a few other heaven-and-hell plates, one element brilliant and another the foil. The burger that was ordered medium arrived with sweet onion marmalade, hunks of Rogue River blue cheese and perfectly tart pickle slivers. But it also arrived raw, held together only by a five-second sear to the edges.
Flawless roasted brussels sprouts boasted tender centers, crunchy edges and bacon nibs lurking within, but they arrived with a juicy roasted chicken so salty that the restaurant’s free-filtered-water policy was tested.
There was a glimmer of excellence in a buttery-smooth celeriac soup (pictured). Each slurp packed a punch from pickled ramps and tart apples, plus smokiness from meaty cubes of bacon. Unlike most of the other dishes, this one needed no qualifier. But if Balsan is going to lure adventurous eaters, simply nailing a soup isn’t going to cut it.