Names, names, names. Sydney, at this point in your life you seem a little obsessed with names. Redevelop a building, send out the scouts and gather up some of the big guns. Case in point #1 – Westfield Sydney. Once a dilapidated rabbit warren of pokey arcades and shops; today a high-brow mecca for fashion fiends and foodies. Take a wander down Market Street and over to the casino and you’ll find another transformation. Case in point #2 – The Star. Once a tacky casino called Star City; now a partially modernised and re-branded complex (still with casino) with a new tower and podium housing retail and swanky new eateries.
When I lived in Pyrmont I very occasionally went to Star City. I reckon I did the buffet a couple of times, I definitely didn’t do the casino other than have a few drinks at that tacky “outback” bar complete with fake rocks and waterfalls and that penthouse restaurant called Astral closed before I ever made it. Did locals ever go to the casino? Out-of-towners and mainly tourists, I’m sure. Well look at it now. It’s grown up a tad. Most of the tack has vanished. The turd has had a polish and those damn food bloggers are sniffing around like swines in search of truffles. Truffles like Adriano Zumbo, David Chang, Chase Kojima to name a few. Ok, let’s not forget Peter Kuruvita, Teage Ezard, Luke Nguyen and godfather Stefano Manfredi; they’ve all got their piece in The Star pie.
The first restaurant to put my appetite to the test is this – Osteria Balla – newest venture by Steve Manfredi. This is far from the last Manfredi restaurant I visited, Manfredi at Bells, where we sipped and supped on well-crafted vino and food fresh from the garden and providore. The Balla establishment overlooks the wharves and Pyrmont Bay with tables running the length of the curved glass window but if that isn’t your thing there are always the circular booths by the kitchen or the special private dining room that I’m eyeing off for an upcoming party. A very polished modernist style but relaxed at the same time. The wine list comes in iPad form and is easy to navigate providing you know what you’re going for but in our case we found it almost as challenging as we did in Italy a few years ago. Not the iPad, the grape varietals. It was more of a guessing game there but at least at Balla you have the very infomative sommelier Fabio at hand.
Vino is poured into stemless glasses and a bread basket with olive oil lands on the table before you know it. It kinda felt like we were back on holidays but no matter how much I wished and squinted my eyes the harbour just wasn’t going to turn into the Hudson River. Mr K chooses the cecina al forno (8), a baked chickpea tart that was nothing like either of us expected. Made with a batter using chickpea flour, this omelette-like starter was as simple and humble as something you may get in a rural Italian farmhouse. None of the pastry that comes with your regular tart, just a soft and slightly eggy quartered disc topped with fresh shavings of parmesan. Very nice, especially the cheese.
The sound of wood grill scallops as a special was something I couldn’t avoid – five small scallops on the shell topped with ample diced fresh tomato, a little marjoram, olive oil and finely grated black radish. Beautifully simple flavours from the oil and tomato and distinctive edge from the marjoram and peppery radish. Sadly the scallop was lost in there somewhere, virtually flavourless and more of a vehicle for everything else.
Anyone I’ve met that has had burrata has been hooked and just can’t stop obsessing about it. I introduced the other half to this gorgeous soft cheese at our hotel restaurant in California on the last holiday and it seems every time it’s on a menu it’s ordered without question. The burrata (22) at Balla doesn’t disappoint with its creamy innards and salad of tomato and asparagus. One word: heavenly.
The carne menu proved a little challenging for me as I wanted everything; the pork, the T-bone and as for the pasta menu … well, it looks like a revisit is in order. Petto d’anatra indivia e balsamico (38) translates to all forms of deliciousness. A thick and plump duck breast cooked to perfect pinkness on the wood grill, crisp skin and a slightly sweet, slightly tart, slightly bitter pile of balsamic witlof. What a winner.
A side contorini of fagiolini con olio e Parmigiano (14) – asparagus with ex virg olive oil and Parmesan – does wonders with the richness of the meat, especially my spalla d’agnello al pagrattato (39). I mean how could you not order this? Shoulder of lamb also cooked on the wood grill, smoky, done to medium rare, tumble of crunchy breadcrumbs and fresh burst of salsa verde. I really shouldn’t have agreed to get another basket of bread. I was filling up!
However, when dessert time came along we pounced on a couple of them with a little too much eagerness. Shady Wasef is the guy behind the sweets at Balla and our torta al caffe’ a nocciole (18)and sformato di zucca con creme all’ anise (18) didn’t disappoint. Neither were overly sweet. Layers of hazelnut sponge and espresso cream, curl of dark chocolate and finely ground praline is a perfect accompaniment with a coffee. Simple flavours and seemingly simple construction. The sformato is a pumpkin and amaretto flan, of sorts. Not the typical French flan complete with pastry but more of a steamed, or maybe water-bathed “mousse” that’s set and accompanied with a dark anise cream in the centre. Tricky stuff. The subtle pumpkin flavour was really quite nice, mildly sweet, soft like a mousse and the sharp wallop of anise worked well. If I can split hairs, I reckon something with a crunch would have gone well with all the soft-on-soft textures.
Big thanks to Steve and crew for allowing me to wave my camera into the kitchen. I dare say that casino building will be seeing me again sometime soon.
hnf & co dined as guests of Osteria Balla