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