From the December issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller

The Stars align

Pat Nourse tries his luck at the tables of
Momofuku, Black and Balla, the real high rollers of The Star

Things are looking up at Star City. The Star, as it’s now called, has invested heavily in offering bold new food and drink ventures, which means that for diners, the odds have gone from a crapshoot to blackjack. That is to say, the house still holds all the cards, but if you’re canny, you’ve got a shot at coming out ahead, and you’re sure to have plenty of fun along the way.

Four very different new restaurants lead the charge, and they’re complemented by a lifting of the game in the bars and food court. Adriano Zumbo has a wild new pâtisserie (inspired by the boardgame Mouse Trap) that confirms his Wonka-esque tendencies, with a self-effacing bit of neon flashing “I HEART ZUMBO” out the front and caramelised pumpkin seed “Zumbarons” (Zumbo macarons, that is, folks) inside. Peter Kuruvita and the Flying Fish gang have staked out the food court with their Flying Fish & Chips, and they’re joined by the likes of Gelato Messina and soup-bun specialists Din Tai Fung. The real high rollers, though, are Momofuku Seiobo, Black by Ezard, and Balla. (Sokyo, a modern-Japanese restaurant from Japanese-American Nobu alumnus Chase Kojima, was opening just as we went to print. Expect “chilled-out sounds” from a resident DJ to accompany your tuna sashimi with plum wine jelly)….

Stefano Manfredi’s Balla, confounds all kinds of expectations. Between Luigi Rosselli’s design – which beautifully references the paintings of the restaurant’s Futurist namesake – and sharp graphics from design firm Frost, Balla makes a bold statement in favour of Italy’s contribution to the definition of 20th-century cool. More Vespa than Verdi, more Marcello Mastroianni than Michelangelo.

This is not about the food of today’s Futurists of cuisine, however, with their foams and mousses, and nor is it just like Nonna used to make. It strikes a neat balance between a classical grounding and a contemporary sensibility, turning a traditional insistence on simplicity and freshness into a modern-day elegance that entirely befits a restaurant of its class.

Take the grilled duck breast, Treviso, balsamic: three ingredients, bang, bang, bang. In the charry bitter leaves and the thick, glossy vinegar, you’ve got two different takes on sour-sweetness. Each of them alone makes a jazzy accompaniment to the expertly rendered-and-crisped skin of the duck; together they’re a symphony. And from just three essential ingredients. It’s a great dish.

The cuisines of Italy’s north dominate the menu whether in inspiration (ribollita, Tuscany’s bread and kale soup, say, in a gutsy, soul-warming rendition) or in accent (the Tuscan oil on the superb slow-cooked octopus and potato, the Barbera used to braise the ox-cheek), but there’s also mulloway with a more southern-sounding pairing of pine nuts, spinach and sultanas, while wood-grilled Yamba prawns are teamed with caponata, and burrata, the pride of Puglia, makes an appearance with tomato fillets and artichokes.

The wine list is all Italian (if you count the handful of bottles of Australian-grown Italian grapes). That’s a bold move in itself, and bolder still, there’s plenty of kooky stuff on offer made by adherents of natural winemaking from Friuli, Emilia-Romagna and Alto Adige. A glass of the lightly sparkling, excitingly fresh and dry Donati malvasia rosé taken with the grilled quail with pickled radicchio makes a resounding argument in favour of the potential these wines have to make a good dish great.

A restaurant run by a Lombardian chef with a reputation for cooking very good risotto prompts certain expectations. Namely that the risotto will be of an exacting texture, each grain of rice distinct, even after having given up its starch to thicken the sauce binding it, each grain still with the little give to the tooth Italians term al dente. Reading that the risotto is made with such-and-such lah-de-dah rice and being told by the waiter that the risotto is cooked to order and will take X minutes only serves to heighten such expectations. Which makes the squishiness of the rice all the more curious when it comes to the table. The ribbons of cuttlefish and panes of pungent bottarga folded through it are above reproach. I don’t know if team Manfredi have chosen to serve their risotto this way, or if it was an oversight, but neither answer is entirely satisfactory when it’s your dinner.

The maccheroncini is its polar opposite among the carbs. Sauced with yabby meat, garnished with a head and claws and scattered with sesame seeds, it’s a unique dish, executed with confidence. If I’m not mistaken, I think it was last seen gracing a Manfredi menu at Manta in Woolloomooloo. There’s more than a dash of brilliance in the frittelle di riso con crema alla vaniglia, too. Yep: rice-pudding fritters, crisp and creamy in all the right ways.

Where Black seems a confused thing, a steakhouse that doesn’t do great steak and isn’t an especially great reflection of what Teage Ezard’s cooking is all about, Balla is all Manfredi. Manfredi has never lacked vision, and Balla is his vision splendid, bold, beautiful and fun. In time, I hope to see the odds of getting an impressive meal at Black improve; for now, my money’s on Balla and Seiobo, triumphs of personality both.

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