Balla at ‘The Star’

September 28, 2011 in Food, Reviews by pacejmiller

After almost a billion dollars of gamblers’ money has been ‘reinvested’, the casino formerly known as Star City is now ‘The Star’, and one of its new ‘signature dining’ restaurants is Balla, headed by renowned chef Stefano Manfredi.

By some miracle stroke of good fortune we scored a free meal there and decided to take full advantage, especially because Manfredi became one of our favourite chefs following our visit to his Central Coast restaurant at Bells at Killcare (review of that place here).

I must admit, the newly renovated ‘The Star’ looks pretty darn good in comparison to what it used to be.  It’s clear that they are going for that super upmarket Vegas look judging from the grandeur of the decor and the expensive shops.  And Balla, which only opened in mid-September, has one of the best locations there, right atop the stairs near the theatre and overlooking the water.

It has a spacious interior with an open kitchen and chic modern design, and all the waiters look like they have undergone some serious training.  On this particular evening there were a couple of celebrity sightings (I’m talking at the Home and Away level), but it was good to see the man himself, Mr Manfredi, standing near the entrance to greet guests.  I believe he also personally delivers one dish to each table for the evening, and we were lucky to get the opportunity to congratulate him on the new opening.

The menu is quite varied (check out a sample at the website) with an assortment of antipasti, oysters, meats, starters, pastas, main courses and sides.  We were delighted to discover that our favourite dish from Bells, the spinach and ricotta gnocchi (which we had twice in two days there) has migrated to the Sydney menu.  Interestingly, I did not see a paper wine menu — all their wines were listed on iPads which waiters carried around with them.

The obligatory free bread with olive oil

After some complimentary fresh sourdough and ciabatta bread, we ordered the toasted ciabatta, mushroom ragu and cured pork as a starter — and it was sublime.  Mushrooms are a bit of an enigma to me (they can be really good or really bad), and this case they were really really good.  Salty but the textures of the mushroom and the bread worked so well together.

The delightful mushroom ragu ciabatta

Next, we shared the woodgrilled quails with onions and Barbera vinegar.  There wasn’t a whole lot to distinguish it from quails at similar restaurants, though I can’t deny that the meat was cooked to perfection and the onions and sour vinegar sauce made fine complements to the main dish.

The quail

The first couple of dishes came very quickly, but then we were forced into a long and agonising wait for the pastas/main courses.  I believe it was at least 30-40 minutes.  The reason?  Apart from being extra busy, we were not rushing seeing a show that evening at the theatre like many other patrons, so they figured we could wait.  Understandable but not very fair, so my advice to those dining there would be to tell them you are going to see a show (if there is one on that night) unless you don’t mind waiting.

Eventually the mains arrived.  We ordered two pastas and a duck breast main.  Of course we went with the spinach and ricotta gnocchi with burnt butter and parmesan, and it was as magnificent as I had remembered it.

The best gnocchi ever man

The other pasta was the maccheroncini pasta with butter, parmesan, yabbies, sesame.  We had no idea what maccheroncini was and were told that it was tubular, so we thought it would be pretty good — but the pasta we were served was actually wheat pasta.  Now I know some people like wheat pasta as it is a healthier alternative, but personally I don’t like the taste or texture of it.  The dish itself was not bad, and the yabbies were very fresh, but my lack of fondness for the pasta itself and the blander flavour made this dish a slight disappointment.  In hindsight we probably should have gone with the pappardelle with kid goat ragu and chilli or the cuttlefish and mullet roe risotto.

The yabbi maccheroncini

As for the duck breast — no complaints.  It was wood-grilled with balsamic.  The skin was crispy and the meat was tender and succulent.  Definitely one of the better duck breasts I’ve had in recent memory.

The duck breast

Oh, and we also ordered a side of grilled vegetables — and it was among the best I’ve ever had.  Peppers, onions, zucchinis, asparagus and eggplant — all of them incredibly fresh and tasty.

Sensational roast vegetables

And finally, no dinner would be complete without dessert.  We had already tried the tartufo with Amedei chocolate at Bells, so we went with something more unusual — one was a pumpkin dessert with liquorice sauce and the other was three scoops of premium gelato (we went with chocolate hazelnut, vanilla rhubarb and blood orange).  Marvellous.

In all, a splendid night out.  To be honest, it’s probably worth going for the gnocchi alone.  Point deductions for the maccherocini and the long wait between starters and mains, but I can definitely see myself heading back there again in the future.

8 out of 10!

PS: That meal would have cost around $185, including non-alcoholic drinks and still water.