Balla at The Star

After our dastardly dining experience at an Italian Restaurant in Mittagong I was desperately yearning for some authentic Italian food that would give me that feeling of being transported to the very heart of Italy for a moment of time I would forever remember.

Studying the menu at the entrance of Balla

Gazing at the menu at the entrance of Balla

By an unbelievable stroke of good fortune, I was invited to dine at Balla, owned by Stefano Manfredi who has been successfully running Italian restaurants in Sydney like Restaurant Manfredi and Bel Mondo since 1983.  Balla opened at the end of 2011 and is his latest offering with Tuscan-born Gabriele Taddeucci as head chef.

The entrance of Balla

The entrance of Balla

The restaurant is one of several fine dining offerings at The Star which is centrally located in Pyrmont.  Balla has been purpose-built and Gabriele has been involved since the space was just an empty shell.  It has been designed to reflect the Futuristic Italian artists of the 1920’s and so the design is minimalist while also being rustic.

Chefs working in a fish bowl

Chefs working in a fish bowl

Surrounded by shops like Rolex, Chanel and Gucci, the entrance to Balla is impressive with your eyes moving almost immediately to the open-plan kitchen.  At 7pm on a Tuesday night it’s already in full-swing with chefs going about their business quickly and quietly with no Gordon Ramsay-styled outbursts.  Flames are leaping from the wood-fired oven and we walk past a display of market-fresh fish sitting on ice and there is no fishy smell.

Open flame cooking

Open flame cooking

Gabriele comes over to greet us and in our few minutes of conversation I discover he knows Celia and he speaks of her fondly.  I tell him to watch out for her because she’s quite the cougar.

Well dressed staff in clean pressed uniforms greet us with a smile and Luca, the head waiter shows us to our table.  The dining section of the restaurant is a semi-circle with the exterior wall being floor to ceiling glass that are actually windows that pivot like an arm so on a warm night these can be opened to allow the outside in.  We sit looking out at a water view with the harbour bridge in the distance although actually, on this night there’s yet another downpour so the view’s a bit drowned out.  I can see a private dining room at one end of the restaurant and nearby are some retro movie lights that look like they’ve come from the set of a Fellini film.

Seafood on ice

Seafood on ice

The tables are well spaced so you don’t have to tuck your elbows in nor do you have to listen in to anyone else’s conversation.  The restaurant is packed and despite the timber floors and glass walls and the open kitchen there’s no issue with noise.  I don’t have to shout at Carl for him to hear me which makes for a more restful dining experience.

A quiet corner of the restaurant with movie lights - very Federico Fellini

A quiet corner of the restaurant with movie lights – very Federico Fellini

Luca brings over an i-pad and these are given to all diners and this is how you select your wine.  The award-winning sommelier has put together a very comprehensive wine list with over 380 wines and around 80% of them come from Italy.  The price for a bottle of wine starts at about $50 with the average price being around $70.00.

i-pads are brought to each table and left with you to select your wine

i-pads are brought to each table and left with you to select your wine

Luca explains to us that Balla is doing a regional series and we were there for the launch of cuisine from Umbria.  Umbria is a landlocked region just north of Rome and is famous for its black truffles and lentils from Castelluccio.  For the next four weeks you can order the Umbria menu which is four courses for $95 or $125 with matching wines.  We handed back the i-pad and decided to have the Umbria experience of 4 courses with the matching wines.

Balla

The gorgeous interior of Balla

Complimentary bread is brought to our table with a dish of Italian olive oil.  All the bread at Balla is made in-house.  Gabriele is a coeliac which would seem quite a curse for an Italian but Gabriele does not miss out because he has put hours and hours into developing gluten-free bread that behaves and tastes just like Italian bread.  I had the GF bread that was lightly toasted and it had a decent crust, wasn’t cakey or moist and had a decent crumb.  I should have asked if I could buy a few loaves on my way out.

Umbria-style salumi selection with a truffle grissini

Umbria-style salumi selection with a truffle grissini

The first course was Norcineria (I believe that roughly translates as ‘butcher’) and this was a selection of Umbria-style meats.  On the plate was a goat’s prosciutto, pancetta and parma ham.  The goat’s prosciutto has a distinctive smell and I found it very unusual but for Carl, this was his most favourite thing on the plate and he even grabbed some of mine.  The pancetta was flat rather than round and was my favourite of the selection.  The parma ham was also enjoyable and went well with the truffle grissini and I found myself wishing for more.

Primo.  A selection of cured meats with white wine

Primo. A selection of cured meats with white wine

The primo course was served with a 2008 Tokay Russolo Jacot that I had certainly not heard of before, in fact, I do have to let you know that I’m no expert when it comes to Italian wines.  (I’m actually only expert at drinking wine).  I like the matching wine experience as it’s far better to let an expert choose for you.

Umbrichelli al tartufo

Umbrichelli al tartufo

The next primo course was Umbrichelli al tartufo or large spaghetti with fresh black truffle.  I ordered Gabriele’s GF pasta.  I absolutely had to try it as he spent the best part of a year coming up with a GF pasta that doesn’t fall apart and behaves like a wheat pasta in terms of texture and flavour.  The GF pasta was cassarecce and it came out with a sauce that was made from a truffle butter and parmesan with shaved truffles on top.  The truffles come from the Southern Highlands in NSW and Gabriele had been out there to source them himself.  The pasta dish was incredible and I will be going back to experience it again.  Carl and I left nothing on our plates.

GF pasta with fresh black truffle

GF pasta with fresh black truffle

The wine was a 2010 Ferentano Falesco that is made from the rescetto variety which is very similar to Chardonnay.  The wine was super-intense and cut through the richness of the truffle butter sauce perfectly.

Secondo:  Traditional poached pork sausage with lentils

Secondo: Traditional poached pork sausage with lentils

The secondo was Catechino con lenticchie e tartufo or traditional poached pork sausage with lentils.  I asked Gabriele if he made the sausage and he told me they were bought from Pino’s Dolce Vita in Kogarah, a family business with over seven generations experience in making quality Italian small goods.  However, just a few days ago Gabriele and his team went to Pino’s and took over the kitchen making over 100kgs of pork sausages they will be serving at Balla in a few months time.

Cotechino con lenticchie e tartufo with 2009 Falesco Trentanni

Cotechino con lenticchie e tartufo with 2009 Falesco Trentanni

The secondo was served with a 2009 Falesco Trentanni that was 60% Merlot and 40% Sangiovese.   It is a wine made in Umbria whereas the other matching wines came from regions close to Umbria.  It was a lovely wine to enjoy with the pork sausage and lentils.

Cornmeal, Fruit and Nut Flan with Licorice Ice Cream

Cornmeal, Fruit and Nut Flan with Licorice Ice Cream

The Dolce was a Pangiallo.  A traditional dessert from Umbria that is really peasant food from a time when a lot of items were unavailable and people had to make something with limited ingredients.  So this flan has no flour or eggs or dairy products like butter or cream – it’s one for the dairy free, gluten free and the vegans!

Dessert with licorice ice cream

Cornmeal, Fruit and Nut Flan with licorice ice cream

Gabriele was almost apologetic when describing this dish to us in that he felt it almost didn’t come up to the standard of the truffle pasta and pork sausage however this dessert is beautifully presented and comes with a scoop of homemade licorice ice cream.  There is some aniseed liqueur in the flan and I’m a big fan of aniseed and licorice so this dessert was loved by me.  It had wonderful texture and flavours and the good thing is, when you dine at Balla you get to take the menu home with you and featured on the Umbria menu is the recipe for the cornmeal, fruit and nut flan.  I’ll be making it and sharing the recipe with you.

Dessert served with 2011 L'Armangia Moscato d'Asti

Dessert served with 2011 L’Armangia Moscato d’Asti

The flan was served with a 2011 L’Armangia Moscato d’Asti.  It comes from the northern region of Italy near Switzerland where the land is steep so the grapes are grown on terraced hillsides.  This causes the grapes to get a lot more sunshine leading to a higher sugar content in the grapes and therefore a sweeter wine.  I loved this slightly sparkling wine.  It was fruity like sparkling grape juice.  Carl wasn’t as keen on it but that’s just because Carl thinks red wine goes with everything.

Very pretty presentation

I hope to do this dessert justice when I make it for you!

After our four courses Gabriele took a break from the kitchen and came to join us.  Italians are known for being passionate but Gabriele is so extremely passionate about what he does that it’s totally infectious.  He talked about using ancient grains in his cooking as nobody appears to be allergic or sensitive to them.  He talked about using free-range ingredients at all times even though they do come at a slightly higher cost.  He talked about how he has sourced the first organic oysters in the world and how they are grown in a chemical-free environment in Smokey Bay, South Australia.  He talked about how all the butter is hand-churned, how long it took him to develop a GF pasta that doesn’t fall apart or have poor texture, the process of developing GF bread and how he doesn’t buy any farmed fish.  And how, above all else, he wants his patrons to have an authentic Italian dining experience where the menu will surprise and delight them and the cuisine will be no different from dining in an authentic restaurant in Italy.

Me and Gabriele

Me and Gabriele and we seem to have made quite a mess of the table

Presently, my sister is holidaying in Rome.   She has been sending me emails of all the dining experiences she is having and having friends ‘in the know’ she is dining at the best of the best.  It has been my great pleasure to email back and say, ‘Here in Sydney we’re not doing too badly either’.  Because this has to have been my best Italian dining experience, ever.

Balla

Balla

I’m scratching to find something negative to say.  The only thing I can think of is, if it had been just a couple of degrees warmer, I would have been able to remove my cardigan and show off my pretty sheer-pink shirt.

Verdict:  Hallelujah; there is innovative, authentic Italian here in Sydney.

Balla:  Level G, Harbourside, The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont.  Ph:  02 9657 9129

Lunch: Tue-Fri 12pm-2:30pm
Dinner: Mon-Fri 5:30pm-9:30pm
Sat 5:30pm-10:30pm
Sunday Closed

The restaurant is curved around a glass wall featuring the view

The restaurant is curved around a glass wall to feature the view

Hotly Spiced dined as a guest of Balla.

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Comments

  1. What a fabulous experience, and a great review. We almost went to Balla last time we went to Sydney, but they didn’t have any tables at the time we wanted so we ended up at Billy Kwong instead (not a bad compromise really!). I’ve eaten at Manfredi at Bells @ Kilcare a number of times and adore it, so its great to hear that the new eatery is fabulous too. If only I could be better planned with my reservation-seeking 😉

  2. I may have to kill you, Charlie… 🙂 Isn’t it a fabulous place? I was taken there for my birthday this year, and absolutely loved it. Great review, Charlie! xx

  3. Looks like a lovely place. The kitchen was sparkling clean, the food is fresh and your photos were amazing. Now it is back to reality in our own kitchen. Have a super weekend

  4. Great review – I love all food italian. Loving the idea of liquorice ice-cream. I have just found liquorice tea and have become addicted to it. This restaurant looks like just my style.

  5. Danielle says:

    This all just looks and sounds squisito…ah, to be in Sydney!

  6. I always enjoy reading restaurant reviews (wish we live in the same country/city!) and I really like reading YOUR detailed reviews. Gorgeous Italian restaurant and love their food presentation and menus!

  7. WOW, wow, wow. I really must get myself down to The Star, haven’t been there since it was Star City. I’m always up for a good Italian meal 😉

  8. I am absolutely blown away, Charlie — this experience sounds incredible. What a beautiful evening and that the food was Gluten Free and delicious is incredible. Even though I have no ailments, I often choose GF just to be healthier. I’m going to try to retweet this restaurant review on my phone for you, it’s something everyone in Australia should know about.

  9. Celia is a cougar?? Say it ain’t so. 🙂

    What a fantastic dining experience, especially considering what went on in Mittagong. I’m so glad you went to Balla at the Star.

  10. You know the most interesting people, Charlie. Sounds like a fabulous experience.

  11. Oh, that dessert slays me! Even before you mentioned that it was vegan, I was swooning for black licorice ice cream (I fell for that in Florence) and cornmeal. Swwwoooooon!

  12. The food sounds nice, but the wines sound even better! It sounds like a great dining experience.

  13. Oh it sounds absolutely fabulous!!! I will be pinning this restaurant 🙂

  14. This sounds fabulous, I’m trying to think of an excuse to get to Sydney now! To have the experience where someone really cares about their cuisine and want to share with such warmth and finesse, truly awesome! The last food experience I had in Sydney was in Newtown. My husband Geoff and I went with his Aunty to a little, tucked away Italian restaurant, the owner displayed the specials by showing us the plates of food and then we ordered, and it was so very yummy and the atmosphere was loud and noisy, but we had fun! The best bit for me was when the waiter and I engaged in a chat about limoncello and I was saying exuberantly how much I loved it and had made my own (yes, probably had a bottle of vino at that point); he then left and came back with the hugest glass of limoncello ! I had observed other diners were drinking out of teeny weeny glasses, mine was a bucket by comparison!
    I digress, thank you for sharing your experience!! Will be going to Balla for sure !

  15. Shaved truffles! Yum!

  16. It is lovely isn’t it Charlie. Celia will be mortified ( but probably secretly pleased anyway) to be spotted like that. I went to one of the regional dinners and really enjoyed it too

  17. What a GREAT experience Charlie, true!
    When next in Sydney, I will be putting Balla on my list of places to try too!
    Cheers! Joanne
    Now on FB too http://www.facebook.com/whatsonthelist

  18. Well, about time you had a real quality dine! This sounds fabulous in every way, and as a gluten-free diner I’m really impressed at all the care and the many hours Gabriele has spent perfecting his gluten free foods. My mouth was watering throughout your descriptions.

  19. LOL at your warning re Celia! She’s quite a saucy minx isn’t she?

  20. How amazing to find such great gluten free offerings-especially ones that have so much pride and care poured into them. Definitely on my go-to list for sure thanks Charlie!
    Celia is a caution indeed! 🙂 xox

  21. Oh dear: just been to the bathroom on a routine visit – my face kind’of looked peagreen in the mirror . . . just loved the cotechino with lentils . . . well, could have happily consumed the rest also . . .:) !

  22. What an amazing restaurant – I love the interior photos and the service sounds delightful. The price seems quite good value for four courses with wine too (or perhaps Perth prices are just ridiculous!)? I’ll look forward to the recipe for that flan in due course, and liquorice ice cream would certainly get bonus points in my book 🙂

  23. I am so glad you enjoyed this experience as opposed to the other 😀
    Delicious and beautiful ambience!

    Cheers
    CCU

  24. Bugger we should have come to Sydney for our holiday instead, that dessert looks awesome 🙂

  25. What a memorable dining experience! Fabulous!
    🙂 Mandy xo

  26. If you find the best Italian in a city or town, then you are lucky! I think so that’s always my first aim wherever I am and I have to admit that it’s not always easy although it’s difficult to mess up with Italian food. lol

  27. So much better than your last dining experience that you shared with us! This restaurant sounds terrific. I really enjoy meals where the staff matches wine with the meal – when done well, they can be magical. Sounds like this was done well. Great review – thanks.

  28. This all looks so incredibly beautiful !

  29. Charlie, I could read your review over and over just for the sheer joy of it. Is it possible to fall in love-at-first-bite with a menu & restaurant 10,000 miles away? Everything about this post was delightful, including your elegant attentiveness while discussing the evening with Chef Gabriele.

  30. Wow!! Now that is one fab dining experience!! The food looks divine!!!

  31. You know, this was probably the best restaurant review I’ve read in a very long time. Your photos were gorgeous and your descriptions were meticulous. You make everything about this restaurant so tempting. The decor is gorgeous as well, I so wish I lived a more minimalist life like that:) xx

  32. We were in Sydney over the weekend and wanted to go here for lunch on Saturday but they only do lunch on weekdays. 🙁

  33. You’re right, Charlie. I so would have loved to have joined you there. Such a fantastic meal you and Carl enjoyed. Smart, too, going with their wine pairings. Never having been there before, how ever could you have chosen wines to accompany those courses? Better to leave it for the pro’s to figure out. How wonderful that your Sister is in Rome. Sounds like your meal would give any one of hers some serious competition. 🙂

  34. Pure Utter Elegance.

    Love the photo of you and Gabriele. He looks quite passionate! Xx

  35. What an elegant environment, and the food looks fantastic. I think you’ve found a new favorite Italian special occasion place. I want the flan with the licorice ice cream! 🙂

  36. What a fantastic meal Charlie 🙂 I’ve walked past Balla quite a few times when I’ve visited but never had the chance to dine there! Would love to try the pasta with truffles i don’t think i’ve ever had fresh truffles before ~

  37. beautiful and also beautiful to share with us too dear Charlie, Thank you, love, nia

  38. Wow! What a wonderful looking meal. The restaurant is gorgeous and I loved your pink shirt. 🙂

  39. Great review and sounds like an even greater experience!! The food sounds delicious…

  40. It certainly looks as though you enjoyed a very special meal Charlie. I’m super-impressed with all the effort he puts in to his GF foods, too.

  41. What a fabulous review Charlie. Apart from the tastes and smell, I almost felt I was there via all your fabulous descriptions. Gabriele sound so completely passionate about what he does and it obviously comes through in the entire experience.
    Carolyn

Trackbacks

  1. […] promised I would share with you the dessert we enjoyed at Balla last week.  Coming from the Umbria region of Italy is this gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan flan […]

  2. […] a few of his best and most popular dishes from his restaurants, The Restaurant Manfredi, Bel Mondo, Balla and Manfredi at […]

  3. […] was very grateful when I was invited to a lunch at Balla to verbally learn more about prosciutto di parma and parmigiano reggiano, as well as (more […]

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