I think I've finally figured out where things are at The Star. Because as we pull up outside I brace myself for the maze and getting lost to find Balla restaurant. The valet however says that to get there I simply go up the escalators. Relief floods through my body down to my spiky heels. I was running late and I imagined getting lost in my panic to get to the Cooking From Our Mothers dinner for Crave food festival at Stefano Manfredi's new restaurant Balla.
Named after Italian "Futurist" artist Giacomo Balla with a $4.5million fit out by architect Luigi Rosselli, Balla is striking. Flirtatious Italian male staff line the bar and the open kitchen and the restaurant faces a water view with large glass windows affording diners a clear waterview. There are many details for the art and architectural buff. The ceiling is made to resemble one of Balla's paintings and the many staff gliding past are outfitted in uniforms designed in Balla's anti neutral style in collaboration with Melbourne designers "Beat Poet".
The yellow toned lamps are one of Manfredi's favourite topics-they were a $300,000 commission with his friend Seattle based glass blowing artist Dante Marioni whose work features in the White House collection among others and who was trained by Venetian master Lino Tagliapietra. The glass artist and the architect worked on separate continents using the internet as their communication tool and each pendant light came as a separate piece that they had to put together here. "In the glass blowing community, he's as big as Elvis" Manfredi says.
The columns are decorated with Italian glass mosaic tiles 0f two layers because the first layering was installed incorrectly and had to be redone much to the builder's chagrin.
But enough of the design, what about the food? The dinner tonight is held in the private dining room around a stunning large four part leaf dining table. There's a glass of Prosecco bubbles waiting for us and some excellent bread and olive oil. Manfredi introduces the dinner briefly and explains that tonight's food is not only the food that he learnt to cook from his mother but also his grandmother. The dishes hail from the area that his family came from in Brescia and Mantova or Mantua, Italy.
Primi: yabbies with braised capsicum, wood grilled quail breast wrapped in pancetta, onions, Barbera vinegar and grilled veal tongue with salsa verde.
Our first course comes out and it is a mixture of share and individual serves. The three part plate has yabbies with braised capsicum; wood grilled quail breast wrapped in pancetta, onions, Barbera vinegar and grilled veal tongue with salsa verde. The yabbies are wonderfully cooked, soft and tender and not at all tough, and paired with a soft, sweet, braised capsicum. The quail breast is wrapped with crisp pancetta and is a succulent little morsel and the thinly sliced veal tongue is topped with a piquant salsa verde. Stefano comes out and helps serve every course and then explains a little about each dish.
Primi: Crudo di pesce -raw fish dressed with Lake Como extra virgin olive oil
Part of the first course, the raw fish is a share plate and it is a simple lightly dressed raw mulloway with a hint of lemon and dotted with baby herbs and Lake Como aka George Clooneyland extra virgin olive oil.
Primi: Giardiniera di stagione - seasonal pickled vegetables
I do like pickles when they're on the sweeter side with a hint of vinegar and these are just the ticket-lightly sweet and not face puckering at all!
Pasta: Tortelli di zuvcca burro e salvia con Parmigiano/ pumpkin ravioli with burnt butter, sage and parmesan served with Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Bucci 2009
Manfredi explains that this dish is made with ground apricot seeds (which is what Amaretto is made from) to give it that distinct almond flavour whereas sometimes people use amaretti biscuits to get the almond flavour. There is also parmesan, apple mustard fruits (which is where fruits are cooked with mustard and sugar syrup) and nutmeg. The actual Queensland blue pumpkin used in the dish involves squeezing out the pumpkin using tea towels for a total of two hours to get rid of all of the moisture from it and they use tea towels as that is how his grandmother taught his mother to do it.
He tells us that pumpkin is used widely in Medieval dishes in middle Italy. I love burnt butter and this dish is simple but all about execution. The almond flavour is distinct and the pumpkin texture unlike any other pumpkin ravioli I have tried. The two hour wringing process means that the filling it not wet or sloppy at all as it can be and it is perfectly paired with fried sage leaves and the burnt butter which I can't let go of and use some bread to mop up.
Secondo: Coniglio ripieno e lenticchie: roast rabbbit saddle with bread and mustard fruit stuffing, braised lentils served with Rossojbleo Gulfi 2009
Manfredi explains that he used rabbits as they are sustainable and that these rabbits are not wild rabbits but rather white angora rabbits that have a flavour like chicken. The loin here is deboned and stuffed with bread and pear mustard fruit with a bit of liver and kidney for flavour and then wrapped in prosciutto. They sit on a bed of castelluccio lentils from Tuscany that are cooked in a vegetable stock and soffritto.
The rabbit itself actually does very much like chicken but with the slight visual pinkness of turkey. The stuffing is rich and highly flavoured, in fact chatting to the diners next to me we remark that everything is perfectly seasoned and there is no reaching for the salt.
The cubed rosemary roasted potatoes are lightly crisp and aromatic and a suitable pairing to the rabbit.
Cime di rapa
Cime di rapa or sprouting turnip tops are an in season vegetable at the moment and they have a slight bitterness to them.
Dolce: Torta sbrisolana con crema e amarene/Polenta shortbread with ricotta cream and amarena cherries served with Moscato d'Asti il Giai l'armangia 2010
The dessert is a simple one borne out of "la cucina povera" or the cooking of the poor. The biscuit is made with butter, eggs, sugar, vanilla, lemon peel and polenta as in traditional times they had plenty of corn but little wheat. Manfredi says that traditional recipes only used corn in the ground form rather than fresh and he challenges anyone to find a traditional Italian dish with fresh corn. The biscuit is resting on top of a quennelle of ricotta, mascarpone and candied cedro which is a candied peel that they also use in panettone. The finishing touch, amarena cherries preserved in sugar syrup are tiny sour cherries with the flavour of the larger sour cherries but a firmer texture. The dessert has a good crunch from the polenta and a moreish creaminess from the smooth ricotta and mascarpone cream studded with fruit peel.
The crostoli are after dinner treats that come with coffee. These are crunchy and lightly dusted with sugar (although a bit more sugar would have been nice).
There are also dark chocolates topped with almonds and fruit which are like the French mendiants and they are a suitably sweet end to the evening.
So tell me Dear Reader, do you tend to notice or are you interested in a restaurant's architecture? And which restaurant do you think has particularly nice design?
The wine racks inspired by Cocktaoo Island's shop works
NQN dined as a guest of Destination NSW
Cooking From Our Mothers
The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont, NSW
Cooking From Our Mothers was a Crave Sydney Food Festival Event. Tickets were $165 per person with matching wines