Balzac, on the corner of Brady and Arlington, is a difficult bar to label. On the walls, there is art of varying degrees, complemented by the candles on the tables and soft lighting from the chandeliers and lamps. A head mount of a whitetail is above a bar top of hard steel, both looking out of place and still pretty cool. And yet, that’s what this bar is – different styles meshed together, standing alone for their own worth. It’s named after Honoré de Balzac, the French novelist who created La Comédie humaine, an epic span of novels, short stories and plays of diversified life and lifestyles. And it lives up to its name, bringing together people in a place as varied and different as they are.
So with that in mind, the proprietors of Balzac claim it a wine bar. But in many ways, it’s so much more. Above the high-backed booth, bottles line the wall. A lamp on the bar top is sprinkled with corks, looking almost like a sacrifice to some sort of wine god. They’re 555 special, something they’re famous for, revolves around $5 half carafes and $5 wines. The magnetic pull of that old drink is strong, and, lucky for me, Monday was flight night, which means half off flights of wine. For those unfamiliar, a flight is a sampling of several different liquors, in this case wine. Balzac serves them in samples of three. I traveled my way through the wines of Portugal, Spain and Italy, all white and crisp, all good.
And, if wine isn’t what you’re after, they have a fairly incredible beer selection. The prices are what you’d expect from a wine bar, but with more than 50 varieties, it’s almost worth it. They have very little draft beer though, which is fine for this style of bar. But, in my opinion, Balzac should have some wine on tap then (some of us are on a budget).
But budgets can be overlooked when it comes to good food (the prices are fair, and the entire menu can be found on the website, www.balzacwinebar.com). For a wine bar, or for even a restaurant, it’s really great. Starting off, I had the Garlic Roasted Mushrooms. Honestly, they’ll change you. They’re that good. Next, Spanish Mussels in saffron garlic broth, which were excellent considering the land-locked nature of the Midwest. After that, I ordered the Asian Spiced Tuna, which is tuna tartar and something that I am consistently underwhelmed by. This was no different. The spices conflict with one another, causing a complete destruction of the tuna itself. But, some people like fish without the fish flavor; I’m just not one of them. Lastly was dessert, a Genache Cake with pink peppercorns, served chilled. I’m not big on sweets, but the presentation was enough by itself to win me over.
This wine bar, like most, is not a place you go to drink loudly and dance. It’s not a place for pre-gaming or shots on your way down Brady. This is the focal point of the evening. This reason to go out. It has the eclectic nature that Balzac, the writer, tied to the facets of his fiction, the over-encompassing humanity of us all. But perhaps Hemingway, and not Balzac, said it best. It is a clean, well-lighted place and the reason for drinking, a bar relative only to the drinker. It is quiet with outdoor seating and shadows that can be counted on. It is, like Hemingway said, for “all those who do not want to go to bed … all those who need a light for the night.”