Italian With Guts

Bitter cocktails, smoky fish and other gems at Balena

Balena's smoked mackerel doesn't have much visual impact.

Its drab color palette ranges from white to tan, with a flash of orange when its accompanying soft-cooked egg is cut.

But in the mouth, the lightly smoked fish ($10), fried breadcrumbs, garlicky aioli and silky egg form a riotous group of textures. It's a fitting introduction to the new Lincoln Park restaurant helmed by chef Chris Pandel of The Bristol. At Balena, most dishes pack an unexpected element of complexity and surprise.

Wood-oven-roasted chicken thighs ($18) are adorned with a tangy combination of charred lemons, green-garlic confit, sugar and coriander seeds, which explode into a heady aroma. A bowl of clams, guanciale, nettles and curls of fluted gigli pasta ($17) is flavored with the same lively acidity and shot through with the gentle burn of preserved habanero chiles.

The cocktail menu is marked by bold flavors, too. Italian amari are the stars, anchoring spirits from rum to Scotch, and rated on a 1-to-10 scale of bitterness. We beelined for the Fib, with Amaro dell'Erborista, Ransom gin and grapefruit–as silky-smooth as it was bitter.

The standout dessert was all subtlety and sophistication: a pistachio gelato sundae with burnt-orange caramel, pistachio nougat and slivers of orange confit.

Balena, 1633 N. Halsted St.; 312-867-3888 or balenachicago.com