Balla’s star performance

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Salumi at Balla, by Anson Smart

If there’s one thing i’d like to squeeze out of Gabriele Taddeucci, head chef at Stefano Manfredi’s Balla at Sydney’s The Star casino, it’s how to make the ‘nduja that he serves on wood-fired ciabatta with a dollop of rich, soft goats cheese.

For the uninitiated ‘nduja (pronounced en-doo-ya) is a traditional Southern Italian salami that is – wait for it … spreadable. That’s right folks. Forget the meat slicer, this oozy-schmoozy salami can be spread on bread, licked off fingers and – here’s something to lose sleep over – melted into soups and pasta sauces to give them a chilli smack not to be messed with.

I’ve dined at Balla a number of times – it’s one of the benefits of working across the road at Fairfax – but ‘nduja has proved a perennial sticking point. Since the first time i selected from the antipasti menu the charming trio, of which it is a member, i haven’t been able to resist it.

“Outrageous” is how my most recent dining partner described it. Outrageous it surely is. 

The fire-bomb smudge of chilli-spiked, dark-red spread contrasts perfectly the creamy goats cheese and smoky wood-fired bread. I’d like to smear it under the skin of chicken prior to roasting, slap it alongside crème fraîche inside a smashed jacket potato, and whack it inside cheesy croquettes so it becomes lava-like in the deep-fry.

It’s a fire-cracker introduction to Balla’s menu, which is splattered with traditional Milanese dishes and southern Italian influences, many of which are infused with the smokiness that comes with being cooked on a 100-year-old seasoned Ironbark wood-fired grill.

If you’d rather antipasti that only blows your mind and not your chill-scorched taste buds, then crudo di pesce – skin-thin slithers of raw fish dressed with lemon, olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper is subtle, refined, and pleasantly un-fishy. Poached veal in vitello tonnato is as pink as a teenager’s blush, the tuna and caper sauce is dollop-thick and on the just-right side of rich. Cecina al forno – baked chickpea and pecorino tart is as thin as a pancake and just as comforting. A smorgasbord of salumi includes prosciutto di Pino, prosciutto San Daniele, bresaola, pancetta and soppressa.

‘Nduja isn’t my only sticking point. I struggle to get beyond the primi – or starter sized portions of pasta and potato gnocchi. Gnocchi with duck ragu is particularly difficult to resist, and if there’s another thing i’d like to squeeze out of Taddeucci – or Manfredi, for that matter – it’s how to make gnocchi that dissipate like melting moments when popped in the mouth. The ragu shared rather than dominated the spotlight.

The last time i dined at Balla i made it beyond the primi to the carne (meat) section of the menu. Bistecchina di manzo ai ferri, funghi e Grana – wood-grilled grass-fed “minute steak” with mushrooms and grana – delivered a smoky punch that was slightly over-powering for my taste, though i intend to explore this section of the menu further. The mix of mushrooms and slithers of grana was a gratifying topping, but with a dash too much vinegar.

A slice of domed zuccotto – a layered cake of sponge, chocolate, ricotta and mascarpone,  speckled with glacé fruit and served with alcohol plumped cherries – was gently sweet and a light note on which to end a rewarding meal.

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Balla's dining room, by Anson Smart

Manfredi and his business partner Julie Manfredi Hughes have created a dining room that is modernist and striking with a geometric aqua-hued ceiling and majestic marble-tiled columns. The huge square windows open and close electronically and were wide open to the ink-black night and shimmering Sydney harbour when i last arrived, adding to the feeling of spaciousness.

Balla is on trend with an all-Italian wine list that arrives on an iPad, (read more about it in the article i wrote for the Australian Financial ReviewDiners Go Digital), and stylish single-sex toilets. Staff are friendly and attentive.

All up, Balla is a star in its own right at Sydney’s gentrified casino entertainment complex. Shine on.

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22 Comments

Filed under Restaurant Reviews

22 responses to “Balla’s star performance

  1. Great write-up Rachel, with lots to lust after.
    Am thinking lunch next time I’m up your way – what say you?

  2. Love Balla, absolutely love it and cannot wait to go back! Would love to join you and Amanda, Rachel!

  3. In need of ‘njuda right about now. Damn those Italians with their mouthwatering, mind-boggling, super-sensational food memories that permeate into our mouths (and pores). Gotta get a BIG dose of all.of.it.

    • I know, they have a lot to answer to those Italians! How dare they commandeer out taste buds the way they do! If you’re ever up for a dinner/lunch at Balla, let me know.

  4. Sleepless

    These days all roads lead to Balla. I’m slowly trying to work my way through the menu, but their mouth watering specials side track me from time to time.

    Need a job near Balla…..

    • I am so glad to hear that i am not the only person who gets side-tracked by the Balla menu. It took me four attempts to make it past the primi selection … All good stuff. I, too, am trying to make it through the menu. Keep up posted about the specials you try out

      • Sleepless

        I’m trying dishes at random from the menu. So far haven’t eaten that much from the primi selection. Have ordered Crudo a few times.

        I’ve been in Balla probably 8 times now. Last few visits I just went with the daily specials.

        Will send you the link as soon as my blog is up. Currently WP templates are killing me, as I cannot find the one I like. (I only have almost 3 years of dinners to transfer, which equates to 190 pages)

        Mains of the grill is another selection that’s impossible to resist. I think I need to return to Balla soon…

      • The specials always sound fantastic. I’ve tried several, too. I think i will indulge in the whole fish next time.
        I’m looking forward to reading your blog and three year’s worth of dinners~

  5. What a fabulous write up, Rachel! Your description landed the divine crudo di pesce and cecina al forno squarely where I enjoyed it last on my greedy tongue, and made me wish I’d tried this marvel – ‘nduja! Clearly I should try to synchronise a visit when Lizzy & Amanda are there to make it a table of four. :-)

    • Table of four it is Tammy! Can’t think of a better diner line-up. We should seriously consider it. I so enjoyed writing this piece … clearly because i enjoyed the food so much. Looking forward to hooking up some time, down the track! Balla here we come …

  6. wow, you’ve sold me! i want to try it :)

  7. thelittlestanchovy

    This place is right up my alley. I love how light and airy the dining room is too! In the meantime, I have to track down some of this ‘nduja you speak so highly of….!

  8. Looks like a beautiful restaurant with really beautiful food… but the best part of this post is your idea for creme fraiche and nduja in a jacket potato! That sounds like the fanciest, most delicious “Tuesday Night in Front of the TV Dinner” ever!

  9. Exactly, i can’t wait for next Tuesday night! And it is a lovely restaurant indeed.

  10. The food is lovely there I agree. I’ve bookmarked a recipe for nduja from the Good Life book by Adrian Richardson. Perhaps one day I’ll get around to making it :P

  11. I’ve hardly eaten at the revamped Star Casino but, damn, your descriptions are making it really hard to resist Balla!

  12. Balla is indeed hard to resist … so much so that i haven’t made it to any of the other restaurants at The Star, yet!

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