HOT: Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle St, Balaclava

I can’t cope with Melbourne’s growing trend for restaurants that don’t take bookings (too uncertain, too impatient, too hungry). But I really wanted to have dinner at Ilona Staller. What to do?

Answer – dispatch my Balaclavan friends R and A to plonk themselves at the bar at 6:30pm on a Saturday night while I navigated the car park known as Punt Road southwards. I arrived at 7:30 and we had our table by 7:45. Success!

Ilona Staller is the sister restaurant of St Kilda institution Cicciolina and the link between the two restaurants is clear. La Cicciolina was the nickname of one Ilona Staller, a Hungarian porn star, Italian politician, wife of Jeff Koons and an intriguing character all round.  Both restaurants serve modern European bistro food in a relaxed yet polished setting. Both restaurants have a no booking policy but are famed for their bar service and cocktails so most people don’t mind lingering for a drink until space becomes available.

The one thing that is different with Ilona Staller is that it’s housed in a huge Art Deco corner building with its name emblazoned in blue neon, the opposite of the small and unassuming Cicciolina back bar. The upstairs bar looks like a mid-century vintage lounge room, while the bar downstairs is verging on what I’d term Italian porn-star chic with zebra print bar stools and gaudy neon.

Anyway, enough with the comparisons. To the food! The menu starts with small bites then moves to entrees, pastas and main courses. The pasta dishes are large enough to satisfy a main course appetite so unless you’re game to eat the traditional Italian way with pasta and a main course, I suggest you pick one or the other.

I decided on a small bite of calamari with aioli ($12.50) and an entree of prawn and anchovy souffle ($19.50). The calamari is ostensibly a bar snack but I think the lightly battered tender rings are actually a really good value option as an entree. As for the souffle, while I enjoyed the subtle flavours of the seafood and the prosecco veloute, I can’t say I really loved it.

Frankly, I wished I was a bit hungrier and had ordered one of my friend’s more substantial dishes – plump orzo in a vegetarian mix fragrant with garlic ($25.50) and a perfectly al dente risotto with shredded duck ($29.50).

It’s almost a given that I will order any souffle shown to me, so hence it was with dessert. My second souffle of the evening was a traditional chocolate souffle paired with cherry ice-cream ($15.50) – a grown-up version of a Cherry Ripe if you will. The souffle was small but intensely chocolatey while being light and airy.

The bombe ($15) was also a hit – R exlaimed in wonderment that he’d never eaten anything like it before. A cross-section of meringue that was light yet at the same time substantial in flavour (not just an airy foam), enveloping a filling of smooth marscapone and a nugget of espresso gelati in the centre. To take it outside the ordinary, the unexpected addition of prunes poached in an espresso syrup.

The restaurant was very busy on a Saturday night and we found the staff professional in dealing with a full house, constantly filling water glasses and attentive to taking orders quickly.

Ilona Staller is a smart restaurant doling out satisfying, well-executed dishes – a continuation of the 17 year old success story of Cicciolina. I’m sure Southside locals will love them both just as much.

Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle Street, Balaclava +61 3 9534 0488

Noon ‘til 11pm, 7 days
Ilona Staller on Urbanspoon

HOT: Monk Bodhi Dharma, Rear 202 Carlisle St, Balaclava

What do you expect to find in a supermarket carpark? Cars, trolleys, a rubbish skip and maybe some delinquent kids? Certainly not the coolest cafe-in-a-brick-shed in town.

Monk Bodhi Dharma sounds like the temple for some Eastern cult, but in fact it’s a fabulous rustic cubbyhouse cafe nestled away from the bright flourescence of the nearby Woolworths. It takes a bit of finding but is well worth the search.

The vegetarian kitchen specialises in healthy eating and kick-ass coffee and tea. The cafe drinkers amongst my friends loved the smooth and creamy inhouse coffee blends. Being the outcast non-coffee drinker, I went for the chai latte, a very spicy mix steeping an unexpected heat into the soy milk. It came presented in a lovely Japanese glazed earthenware teapot and a hand-warming handleless tea cup.

The stripped back brickwork and imposing communal table Where’s makes the space cosy for the people supping on the special stews and soups and the standard menu extending from breakfast to 3pm through to lunch. I went for the Mexican bean mix and crusty seeded bread, a filling and warming dish enhanced by the fiery homemade chilli jam.

J’s banana bread was moist and studded with walnuts while the accompanying lemon ricotta was an indulgent yet light spread.

In need of dessert, I decided to backtrack to the breakfast options to order the Madagascan French Toast ($16). It’s quite appropriate as a dessert – a very sweet mix of eggy bread flavoured with cinnamon and cardamom served with sticky poached pear, that moreish lemon ricotta again, crushed pistachios and drizzled with syrup. It was delicious but my one complaint is that I didn’t like the baguette used to make the French toast, as it was very hard to cut through the crust and overly chewy.

Service was super-friendly and the waitress was very understanding and accommodating of the various accroutrement of new mothers – prams, capsules and nappy bags.

A nice final touch came with the bill – their business card not only lists their contact details, but recommends other places around Melbourne that they like (including Auction Rooms, De Clieu, Proud Mary and Three Bags Full). I love a place that spreads the love!

For more reviews, check out Espresso Melbourne, Where’s the Beef and Backseat Baristas. Monk Bodhi Dharma occasionally hold breakfast degustations which sounds like a good reason to get out of bed and cross town – read Eat, Drink, Stagger to find out more.

Monk Bodhi Dharma on Urbanspoon