Chicago: Brave the Waldorf Astoria for Balsan
Waldorf Astoria Chicago, 11 East Walton Street, Chicago, IL 60611 (map); 312-646-1300; waldorfastoriachicagohotel.com
Pizza Style: Neapolitan-inspired
The Skinny: Very thin and blistered crust with flavorful toppings.
On my last pizza dispatch from Chicago, I took you inside John's Pizzeria, a decidedly old-school joint that serves extra-thin pizza in a room that looks suspiciously like an aging 1970's suburban living room (remember the buxom young brunettes?). So for this review I wanted to go as far in the other direction as I could, and locate the most lavish place imaginable to satisfy a pizza craving. I knew exactly where to go.
Welcome to the Waldorf Astoria, which stands 60-stories tall over the Gold Coast. (Up until a few months ago the hotel was called the Elysian.) Instead of a door on Rush St., the entrance is hidden somewhat in an elaborate courtyard, apparently to keep the riffraff from the Viagra Triangle (a very real place) from wandering around.
Of course, I'm not exactly the target demographic either, and while I never felt unwelcome, I was watched with an eagle eye. See what I mean? Still, the sparkling white and serene lobby comes as quite a shock, and you may wonder if there is even a restaurant around. But make your way to the elevator and hit number three, and you'll be dropped off at Balsan, one of the best, and most approachable, hotel restaurants in Chicago.
Balsan is mostly known for its excellent seafood, including some impeccably fresh oysters (which were criminally left off this list). Even though the menu is short, pizza doesn't appear to be high on its list of priorities. In fact, "pizza" is never even mentioned.
But look no further than the Wood Oven Fired Tarte Flambée ($15), Balsan's one and only choice. Sure, it's technically not a pizza (according to Wikipedia, it's an Alsatian dish), but it's certainly close enough for me. Considering it's been on the menu since Balsan opened, obviously other people agree.
Instead of playing it safe with some Neapolitan-esque creation, Balsan picked out four full-flavored toppings and tried to find some way to make them all get along. The result is a pizza that is at once unhinged, but never overbearing. Topped with bacon, red onion, crème fraîche, and Uplands Cheese (not to mention a sprinkling of chives), it should add up to an indulgent mess. Thankfully, each is applied so sparingly that none stands out too much.
Sure, the richness of the bacon is amplified by a drizzle of crème fraîche, but both are cut by the sharp red onions and the funky, salty cheese. I wouldn't call it light, but I still managed to devour five slices without too much effort.
It helps that the crust is thin, thin, thin—almost to the point where dips into the dreaded floppy category.
But it holds on, probably thanks to a healthy char from the wood-fired oven and a dusting of cornmeal on the bottom. (I should note that I remember the crust being crisper in the past.) Sure, I wish the ends were higher and interior showed more development, but like every other component, it's meant to barely be there.
Balsan is obviously not a pizza destination—no restaurant with only one option can really be. But for a place that does so many other things well, this pizza manages to impress. Plus, it's also the cheapest main course on the menu, which means you can waste whatever savings you have left on as many oysters as you'd can