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Review: Balsan at the Elysian Hotel

The problem I have with dining at five-star hotels is my sneaking suspicion that I’m not supposed to be there, that the maître d’ will take one look at my scuffed-up shoes and send me over to the pizza joint down the street. It’s this apprehension I feel as I climb the grand staircase to the third floor of the opulent Elysian Hotel where its two restaurants reside and into Balsan, the casual counterpart to the two Michelin-starred Ria.

A gleaming marble bar announces its magnificent presence across the length of the expansive space, and I try to get comfortable as I settle into a chunky leather chair. Thankfully, my dining companions and I are seated in a cozy, dimly-lit alcove and I start to relax. Our server, Marco, brightens the room with his friendly conversation and then gets our meal started.

First come the sweet and savory bites. I slather a scone with rich, tangy lemon curd and spread creamy housemade gianduja on a pillowy madeleine, relishing the unexpected pop of sea salt crystals against the chocolate. And as much as I love sweets, I’m smitten with the mellow, nutty, 18-month aged comté and the paper-thin slices of peppery capicola that melt in my mouth.

A bowl of bright orange carrot-fennel soup arrives next, a solace from the dreary weather. The herbal bite of the fennel brings out the carrot’s earthiness and I’m amazed at the pure simplicity of each velvety spoonful.

After the delicious soup, the potted eggplant that follows is a real letdown. It’s a slick, greasy mess; the crème fraîche and mayonnaise in the dip render the bland eggplant even more flavorless and the accompanying cold, charred baguette slices fail to soak up the oily aftertaste.

But the grilled leg of lamb from Elysian Field Farms is just that: heavenly. Tender slices of lamb are crowned with a scattering of mint and parsley and rest on a bed of ethereal potato purée and a touch of fragrant jus. Colorful little vegetables – a tiny baby carrot, English peas, ramps – peek out of the purée like crocuses bursting through the season’s final snowfall. It’s a playful, refined take on lamb stew, and the perfect transition dish from winter to spring.

Our lunch concludes with a paris-brest, a dessert I’ve never had, and I’m not sure how to eat it. Marco, with his disarming sense of humor, says he would just pick it up and shove the whole thing in his mouth. So I take a bite of the eggy, crispy pastry that yields to its soft hazelnut nougatine interior. It reminds me of a cream-filled doughnut, only a hundred times more luxurious.

And that’s Balsan at its essence – luxurious, yet familiar and comforting. I’m already thinking of coming back for a family-style Sunday supper, maybe slurping some oysters at that magnificent bar. Our server provides me with the details and I thank him. “You’re very welcome,” he says, and I really do feel that way.

Balsan at the Elysian Hotel
11 East Walton Street
Chicago, Illinois 60611

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