As far as hotels go, Waldorf Astoria has a reputation that's second to none. While this is good news for those who stay news, it understandably puts pressure on those who are responsible for maintaining that reputationwhich includes everyone from the front desk to the staff at the men's atelier to the restaurant.
Balsan (11 E. Walton St.; waldorfastoriachicagohotel.com/explore-hotel/dining/balsan-restaurant&; has a lot to live up toespecially given that RIA, which was considered the more upscale eatery, closed last year.
A recent visit to Balsan confirmed what I thought: It's slightly more casual than RIA, but is nonetheless impressive. The interior is the essence of "sleek chic," complete with a private dining room next door for up to 30 people. The service is extremely professional and our server, Kelly, was more than happy to offer tips or to customize our orders.
The menu is variedwhich may put off some, but actually delights patrons such as myself. Offerings range from a grilled burger with provolone, tomato jam, pickled onions and horseradish aioli to bucatini Bolognese to seared sea scallops.
The fruits de mer portion of the menu may entice some, and the offerings are plentiful. They range from oysters (as low as $3 each) to lobster to the grand seafood platter, which consists of a whole lobster, king crab, nine prawns, 10 clams, 12 mussels and 18 oysters. (If that doesn't do the trick, nothing will.)
My friend and I decided to try the charcuterie and cheese, selecting items such as the Lincoln log (which contains goat cheese) and the duck terrine, which also contains fennel seed, coriander and golden raisin. The board Kelly brought out had several sublime items on it, including the aforementioned terrine and log, as well as an extremely tasty prosciutto. There was even honey present, complete with comb. My dining companion also ordered a bowl of olives marinated in orange and rosemary; he couldn't get enough of them.
By the way, among the other charcuterie, cheese and small-plate items Balsan offers are guinea hen terrine, house-smoked duck ham, green lentil soup and potted eggplant.
As for the large plates, I ordered the Amish chicken breast roulade with confit thigh, foie gras and maitake mushroom. Sous chef Mathew Wiltzius did a brilliant job with the dish, which he said is one of the restaurant's most popular. The flavors played off each other perfectly. I have to admit the dish was deceptive in terms of size; although it didn't look like half a chicken, I was pretty convinced it was by the time I was through eating it.
We also ordered the wood-oven-fired tarte flambe with bacon, creme fraiche and Uplands cheese. (It also comes with onion but my friend asked for that not to be included.) That dish was amazing as well.
Of course, one shouldn't leave without ordering dessert (at least, to go). While the place offers items such as Honeycrisp apple fritter and dark chocolate terrine, we both opted for the Paris-Brest, a concoction that looks like a bagel sandwichbut is, instead, filled with hazelnut cream and tastes like a dream.
Wiltzius described the cuisine as "casual elegance." That pretty much describes my experience at Balsan. I will be returning soon.
Note: Balsan is one of the many restaurants participating in Chicago Restaurant Week (Feb. 1-10), with a two-course lunch for $22 and a three-course dinner for $44.
Although Brazilian steakhouses are popular, I can see how they're not for everyone. For a set price, you can eat all the food you wantwhich can lead to either overindulgence or the feeling of being robbed if you tend to eat small portions. On the flip side, some can argue it's actually a bargainespecially compared to a place that may charge you double or even triple for a quarter the food.
Places such as Fogo de Chao (661 N. LaSalle St.; www.fogodechao.com ) may inspire debates for some time to come but for those who love it, it's paradise. For $32.50 for lunch ($49.50 for dinner), men (mostly) come to your table with a variety of meats until you tell the extremely attentive servers to stopwhich you do by flipping the card on your table from green to red, just like a traffic light.
On the night we went, the place was hopping, accommodating couples and groups of up to 20 people. Everyone seemed happy, with some (like myself) venturing to the extensive salad bar. To be fair, this bar is stocked with everything from jumbo asparagus to shitake mushrooms to, well, prosciutto. (This place is pretty much a carnivore's dream, after all.)
By the way, this place also does a very good job with drinks. The Brazilian caipirinha is a house favorite, and it's understandable why that's the case; the lemon-blueberry-acai version I had was particularly refreshing.
However, this place is about the meats. This particular Fogo (there are almost 20 locations in the United States alone) offers 15 cuts of meat, including picahna, bacon-wrapped chicken, pork ribs, lamb and pork sausage. The highlight for my friend and me was the very last cutthe filet mignon; it practically fell apart when my fork touched it, and was extremely tender.
I was done after a few cuts, and my friend was more than sated after a few more. However, a woman next to me pretty much had a farm on her plate, and was more than happy. Fogo has a lot to offer (literally)and some are more than willing to meet the challenge of sampling everything.