Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune
Balena's Peter Becker and Amanda Rockman are two faces in an unjustly anonymous position, that of the baker and pastry chef. First, the baker: I recall seeing "Peter's Bread" on Balena's menu and wondered who Peter was. The answer is Peter Becker, and this told me: 1) There was a dedicated bread-maker on site, and 2) By putting his name out there, the restaurant conveys, "We're proud of our kid Peter, and no, we don't believe bread should be an afterthought." For $6, Peter's Bread is an adventure of the tangents possible with yeast, flour and water — tomato water crostini, lemon-pepper challah or a savory milk jam of Gorgonzola, white pepper and caraway.
With pastry chef Amanda Rockman, who like Becker splits time between Balena and The Bristol, the word sophistication comes to mind. We've seen dessert programs in the city push the boundaries toward the Salvador Dali School of Plating. But Rockman, a Tru and L2O alumna, approaches her dishes with a gently playful, classically composed eye. She takes a don't-think-twice idea of coffee and doughnuts and turns it into, arguably, Chicago's most buzzed-about dessert: Cinnamon-sugared affogato, cumulus cloud-fluffy doughnuts with a thick and assertive espresso chaser. The Texas native makes ice cream sundae not so obligatory by reimagining it as elements of a blueberry pie. While I'm a fan of chef Chris Pandel's cooking, it's the bookends at Balena that remain vivid and indelible.
Balena, 1633 N. Halsted St., Chicago; 312-867-3888
— Kevin Pang