It’s full circle for celebrity Italian born, Australian Chef, Stefano Manfredi as he returns to the suburb where it all started: Pyrmont.
His first restaurant, the acclaimed three hatter simply named The Restaurant, was the Manfredi Pyrmont home away from home, for many a happy and loyal customer: three generations of my family included. Manfredi is always ahead of the game. With a detailed focus on the very best quality produce, his most recent – and still current – venture, Manfredi at Bells saw him as one of the first Chefs in Australia to grow their own: (kitchen garden produce that is).
Now he’s back at Pyrmont, but this time as Osteria Balla: one of the first high end restaurants to open in the new version of The Star. (The venue formerly known as Star City).
And he’s bringing us the same stylish elegance on the plate, and perfection in each mouthful, that we’ve come to expect from him.
I’ve had two visits already – a long large family dinner and a beautiful girls’ lunch – and I’ll be back again this week to perch at the bar for a pre-dinner drink. Elegance is not restricted to the plate or the glass though. There are two levels to the stylish design of this restaurant, with all tables providing views over the water and wharves of the now (in itself) very stylish suburb. I’ll bet Chef Stefano Manfredi has seen a change in Pyrmont since he first opened there, some 25 years or so ago.
The design of the restaurant, by Luigi Rosselli resonates with his signature: geometry. My eye is taken with the mosaic columns which Rosselli designed to reflect Manfredi’s produce garden. Window sails open and close to allow in fresh air. The upper level sits like a dress circle. Details of style continue from front of house uniforms to the flatware and Manfredi ceramics with garden hues of olive and aubergine. This, in all its glory, is the full deal with all the components coming together to wholistically create the theatre that a restaurant should offer.
The menu is a large generous sheet one-sided black on white, with the radiant Frost designed Balla colour on the reverse. With eight savoury categories – Antipasti, Ostriche, Salumi, Primi, Le Paste, Pesce e Crostacei, Carne and Contorni – there’s something for all types of appetites and occasions. For me, from two sittings, with family and friends, I’ve already enjoyed sampling most of what the current menu has to offer.
Right from the start the quality strikes you. It’s unmistakable. Antipasti of Giardinera di stagione (seasonal pickled vegetables) is the first demonstration of Manfredi’s commitment to quality of produce and seasonality. Every mouthful is meaningful, and the floor (and the kitchen) know the provenance. My passion at dinner was a baked chick pea tart (Cacina al forno) carefully cut into four for our table as part of a larger antipasti selection. At lunch, I noticed that the oysters are shucked to order. More than this though, each of the three varieties – Sydney Rock, Pacific (at our lunch from Coffin Bay SA) and Angasi (on this occasion from Pambula NSW) – have there own holding methods and temperatures to keep them at optimum until opened. That’s the kind of commitment I want to see given to the food that I eat.
My dish of the day (a special) had to be the Royal Red Prawns. I’m told that Italians get excited by these prized prawns – I didn’t understand until I too tasted the caress of sweet succulent flesh. Stefano reminded me, that while lemon was offered on the plate, it was probably best to not use the lemon and to eat them just dressed in the oil – and he was right. Note here my exclamation of excitement (perhaps, just perhaps, I have some unknown, undisclosed Italian heritage). Though I suspect you too – Italian heritage or not – would be excited by this dish.
Of course, we have the Manfredi family (well at least I do) to thank for the introduction to very beautiful, very elegant hand-made pasta. Stefano’s mother Franca and sons showed us the light. Now Stefano Manfredi’s heritage is still shining, with a beautiful selection of six very fine pasta choices on the Osteria Balla menu. While our family rejoiced in a stunning special of white Alba truffles with taglietelle, I was also able to sample (another family member’s) potato gnocchi with duck ragu (Gnocchi di Patate con salsa d’anatra) on that night. Of this, the gnocchi dish, I give my nod of highest recommendation for you to try.
And we move on to the girls’ lunch, where the maccheroncini is whole wheat, but only a percentage (with which Chef told me took some working, to get the flavour and texture balance just right). Before heading into the kitchen after lunch, I could have bet it was made on the premises and by (the best method of) brass extrusion. Of course it was. And the finished dish with contrast of sweet yabbies and sesame choreographed a stunning performance of dance in the mouth.
The next pasta dish says all that needs to be said. Back to Manfredi being ahead of the game – this time with wild greens – the filling (and simple wording) for Agnlottie verdi. Some might say this is rustic, not I. Purity of produce, perfection in the pasta making, to me strikes notes of simplicity yes, but also of elegance. I’d say think Armani if you want a parallel. Add to that such timing in the cooking that the finished dish has just the right bite, and (I know I’ve said it before) but this, to me is heavenly perfection.
Let’s get back to the focus on detail. The new kitchen, Osteria Balla has a wood fired oven. Tradition resonates with Manfredi. So, yes, perhaps a wood fired oven was not totally unexpected. Yet the next level of detailed astounded me. Chef has sourced wood – Australian ironbark – that has been ageing since 1901 when it was ringbarked. How does it go? Amazing but true? That grilled food – there’s four menu options – has just got to taste GOOD.
The wood fired duck was certainly very moist, tender and delicious. But not just because it was grilled on the fire. This lovely dish is balsamic basted and harks back to my favourite dish at Manfredi’s The Restaurant. It’s just a little lighter in flavour these days, though the smoke from the wood fire gives it a new additonal layer of interest.
One large page is replaced as a new smaller page is presented for dolci. Again I’ve tried all the options over now two sittings. Sformato di zucca con creama all’annice is outstanding, though Manfredi tells me there is no middle ground with this dish – it is love or hate. I, myself don’t like to stand in the middle and I choose love. Circle within circle, the aniseed black cream sits within a fluffy pumpkin circle, delicately spiced, and is surrounded by a creamy anise custard. Yes I choose love. (But then again I’m a pumpkin girl who grew up on mum’s Gramma Pie.) If you like these flavours – pumpkin and aniseed – be sure to vote for this one.
I could go on with dessert descriptions but I am making myself hungry, so I’m going to hit the skip button. Desserts: they’re all good. Before I get to the end, I should mention the cheese and the wine. The cheese is all Italian and has a number of representations from Manfredi’s region of birth: Lombardia. There’s a soft goat’s milk cheese, a washed rind cow’s milk cheese and a blue cow’s milk cheese from that region. You’ll also find four other Italian cheeses including the Pecorino al Tartufo. But don’t let me sway you.
Now for the wine. On both occasions I left my wine selection in the hands of the very talented Fabio Danzi. He did an amazing job with matching our chosen dishes across the table, with bottles of wine. He also introduced me to the most lovely rose (roscetto) that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. If you’re more adventurous Osteria Balla has made it easy for you. There’s an iPad for each table and you can search by grape variety. Stefano Manfredi wrote all the wine notes for the application which displays regions and taste profiles.
At the lunch, my encore was a tiny little block of Armedei chocolate served matched with a sweet red wine: Trabuchi Recioto della Valpolicell 2008. I adore Armedei chocolate and it is one of only two or three brands that I will buy or eat. Manfredi told me it was melted into that tasting size on the premises. I thought for a moment. I could see it was glossy. “You would have to temper that before you reset it. That’s a lot of work” I said. Manfredi just (humbly) smiled then answered “yes”.
As a very last note, if you are at Osteria Balla you are going to be offered the Manfredi own brand coffee (believe me the same quality and care into sourcing and cooking the produce goes into the sourcing and roasting the coffee beans). But if it’s late and you’d like a little less caffeine, you might like to lean with Chef to his personally selected teas. Seven in total are on offer – all loose leaf, of the finest white, green and black varieties.
“A restaurant dedicated to the culture of Italian food, wine and service” Stefano Manfredi
Level G, Harbourside, The Star
80 Pyrmont Street Pyrmont
+ 61 2 9777 9000