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 Chat: Carley Andrews of Ujamaa Hostel

Today’s HOT Chat is the first time I’m interviewing a Melburnian who actually no longer  lives in Melbourne. Melbourne-born Carley Andrews now lives in Tanzania with her husband, running a hostel focusing on providing volunteer work opportunities. I was inspired to interview her after reading about her new project, a childrens’ home, which she has just started with Melbourne lawyer Lucy Bradlow. Thanks Carley!

Carley, tell me a bit more about your background, how you ended up in Arusha, Tanzania and came to run the Ujamaa Hostel?

I first volunteered in Kenya in 2006 and loved the experience, but I went with large company, paid lots of money (none of which went to the project) and was disappointed with the level of support.

A year later I went to Tanzania to volunteer with an independent company, I intended to stay for about a month,  but I never left! I met my husband (who is Tanzanian) when I was volunteering in a town called Moshi, which is about an hour away from where I now live.

We decided to move to Arusha and set up the Ujamaa Hostel because we both love volunteering and helping other people. We also wanted to provide a cost-effective and safe way for others to volunteer in the local community.

What is the philosophy of Ujamaa Hostel?

“Ujamaa” is the Swahili word for “familyhood” and is based on the community working together for the good of the whole. Many of the big companies charge huge amounts of money to volunteer and none of the money goes to the projects. We wanted to change that. We believe that if you spend your money coming here and give your time to help others, then you shouldn’t have to pay to volunteer. And if you have extra money to donate, it should go directly to the projects, not to an off-shore company.

When you volunteer with us the only cost is your accommodation. We spend time sourcing reputable and worthwhile local projects where volunteers can spend their time and we provide them with a range of in-country support.

Your first project is the Ujamaa Children’s Home, which you started in conjunction with Melbourne lawyer Lucy Bradlow. What inspired you both to start this project and what is the purpose of the Ujamaa Children’s Home?

I have worked with and managed many projects over the years and have learnt a great deal from these experiences. I have always wanted to create my own project, but I felt that I needed to spend time on the ground here learning the culture and the language before I could effectively run my own project.

I met Lucy when she was working in Arusha at the Rwanda War Crimes Tribunal and she volunteered with us in her spare time. Our goals and beliefs were so similar we started working together and fundraising for different projects. We decided to create our own project after seeing others being mis-managed and we felt that we have the experience, dedication and commitment to build a successful and long-lasting Home for children in need.

Our relationship works really well because I am able to manage the Ujamaa Children’s Home on the ground in Tanzania and Lucy is able deal with the fundraising and legal aspects back in Australia.

What have you found to be some of the most interesting or challenging aspects of living and working in Tanzania?

Tanzania is different from many other African countries because it is socially and politically stable. There are over 120 tribes here and they all live together in harmony. They are proud of their tribe, but they are more proud to be Tanzanian. Tribal beliefs are strong and well-maintained and while Swahili and English are the official languages you can’t go a day without hearing many other tribal dialects.

The culture here is incredibly rich and interesting, but it is very different from Australia. First and foremost, there is “Africa time”. There’s no hurry in Africa and everything happens at its own pace. You really can’t force things to happen at a normal “Western” pace and if you do, you’ll just end up frustrated and things still won’t happen any faster. This also allows for setting your own work hours and relaxing into a lifestyle that can be reasonably stress free.

There is a lot that is available here, but nothing quite works the way you’ll expect it to, so everyday is an adventure…which is sometimes a bit tiring! There are regular power and water cuts, but generally I live a fairly normal life.

The scenery is incredible and I live just an hour away from Mt Kilimanjaro and a couple of hours from the world’s greatest safari parks. There are often monkeys around town too.

For the most part I feel safe in Arusha, however you cannot walk around at night and we do have Masai Guards at the house 24/7.

The poverty level here is high and there is so much need, but you just do what you can to help and you have to understand that you can’t fix everything.

What are your next plans for Ujamaa Hostel and the Ujamaa Children’s Home?

Ujamaa Hostel continues to expand and we are working with a range of different projects including an orphanage, a Nursery School and some Vocational Training Centres for disadvantaged youths. We love having our volunteers and are so lucky to be able to provide people with this experience. It really has a profound effect on people and it’s awesome that we get to be a part of that.

With Ujamaa Children’s Home, firstly we are looking to gain steady financial support so that we can take in more children. We currently have 5 amazing kids in the house and we’d love to help more.

Our next goal is to raise money to buy land and build a proper house for the Home. We’re currently renting a house which is fine for now, but we want to build a house that is designed specifically for our needs.

You’ve live in Tanzania for nearly 3 years but many of your family and friends still live in Melbourne. What are your favourite places to visit or things to do when you return to Melbourne?

I love coming back to Melbourne and visiting friends and family. My Mum’s cooking is always top of the list and I often spend a lot of time in the Supermarket, there just isn’t the same variety in Arusha.

If I’m eating out, I always go to Rococo (87 Acland St, St Kilda +61 3 9525 3232) with my brother, they have the most amazing salads, breads and pastas. I can never get Mexican food in Arusha, so I make sure I go to Amigos (7/478 Chapel St, South Yarra, +61 3 9826 1653) as well.

The food in Australia is great, because it’s always fresh and quick, but you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get it.

The London (92 Beach St, Port Melbourne +61 3 9646 4644) in Port Melbourne is my parent’s “local” so we always go there for a meal and a drink. Awesome steak sandwich.

If it’s summer, we’ll go to The Local Taphouse (184 Carlisle St, St Kilda East, +61 3 9537 2633) or The Railway Hotel (29 Chapel Street, Windsor +61 3 9510 4050).

I really love just walking around town and getting a coffee with friends. There are no shops in Arusha that sell new items, so I’m always stocking up on clothes and DVDs.

I also love to get some acupuncture at Vitality in Albert Park and to stock up on organic products (282 Richardson Street, Middle Park +61 3 9682 8866).

HOT Chat: Alister Smith of Short + Sweet Dance Festival

For dance fans in Melbourne, June once again brings the Short + Sweet DANCE festival to Chapel off Chapel. You may be familiar with the Short + Sweet organisation through the 10 minute plays that they started putting on around the country around 8 years ago. The  not-for-profit entity is committed to proving performance opportunities to artists all over the this country to explore and develop their craft and work and they’ve now branched out in into dance and cabaret.

Today’s HOT Chat is with the Short + Sweet DANCE’s Festival Director, Alister Smith. Thanks Alister!

half FaceAlister, tell me a bit more about your background and how you came to be the Festival Director of the Short + Sweet DANCE?

I have my own Theatre production house called REDROOM.THEATRE.COMPANY of which I have been artistic director for the last 6 years. I have created, produced and directed many shows that focus on the musical theatre and cabaret genre.

In 2008 I entered a piece that I wrote and directed into the inaugural Short Sweet + Cabaret Festival which was lucky enough to win and that is how the organisation became familiar with my work. So, combining that and my very long relationship with dance I was offered the role of Festival Director of Short + Sweet DANCE Melbourne.

What’s a typical work day for you?

Early Rise. Coffee and The Age. Check work email account and flag and respond to anything that need urgent attention. The day can then be spent doing any number of things from designing art work for promotional material, emails, drumming up interest in for the festival and for any of other my other shows, emails, meeting with colleagues and my production teams, emails, scheduling, emails, time lining, emails, sorting logistics of productions, emails, many many phone calls, emails, pitching ideas and brainstorming, emails, then down to my favourite café Orange for some creating and writing…..emails.

What do you enjoy most about working at the Short + Sweet DANCE?

Helping first time choreographers realise their visions by putting their creations on stage.

What are some of the most interesting or challenging projects that you’ve worked on in your career?

Last year’s inaugural SS+D festival was one of the most challenging process. Kicking off a brand new festival in Melbourne, the capital of arts festivals is no easy feat especially when I only had three months to do so…… but this was one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences of my life.

SS+D POSTERWhat is it about Short + Sweet DANCE that makes it different to other dance events?

What identifies this festival is simple….. be 10 minutes or less in length!

We are searching for every style. Jazz, Tap, Contemporary, Hip Hop, Physical theatre, Burlesque basically if you could dance it we want to see it. We want the best of the best. Push the boundaries be creative, be original, be under 10 minutes in length and you were in.

With the S+S festivals the audience only needs to come along to one venue to see all the pieces, you don’t have to worry about making it all over the city to a multitude of venues to see the pieces you want. We throw them all together under one roof for a night of non-stop brilliance!

Last year’s event was a big hit! What can audiences expect at this year’s festival?

BIGGER & BETTER!! is all I can say….. I’m programing a festival that is fast and furious! We have more variety and everyone is pushing the boundaries… they are being brave and daring with their art forms. There is definitely  something there to challenge and excite everyone from jazz to contemporary to Hip-Hop……

Finally, what are your tips for what’s HOT in Melbourne?

  • Orange (126 Chapel St, Windsor +61 3 9529 1644) …. best coffee in town!
  • Porgie & Mr Jones (291 Auburn Rd, Hawthorn +61 3 9882 2955)…. Melbourne’s best breakfast!
  • The Local Tap house (184 Carlisle St, St Kilda East +61 3 9537 2633)…. The best beer!
  • The Butterfly Club (204 Bank Street, South Melbourne +61 3 9690 2000)….. Best cabaret in Australia (and best mojitos!)
  • Hoo Haa Bar(1/105 Chapel St, Windsor +61 3 9529 6900)…. Super Parma!!

Short + Sweet DANCE will be held at Chapel off Chapel from June 16-27 2010. For a full festival program go to

Melbourne Neighbourhood Guides

agenda printscreenToday I’m pointing you to a guest post that I wrote for the free daily enewsletter The Agenda, which delivers the best of what’s new, unknown or inexcusably under-appreciated in and around Melbourne (they also have a Sydney version).

They recently featured a series of Neighbourhood Guides and I contributed Fitzroy. You can read all about what I had to say about my local stomping ground here.

If you can also read the neighbourhood guides for other cool suburbs of Melbourne: East St Kilda, Collingwood, Brunswick and Windsor.