Balaclava is the most densely populated suburb in Victoria, says Ilona Staller co-owner Barbara Dight. So it was no accident she and partners Virginia Redmond and Lisa Carrodus, of St Kilda favourite Cicciolina selected the suburb’s main shopping strip for the restaurant they opened in December.
La Cicciolina is a Hungarian-born Italian porn star, singer and politician famous for making pornographic films while in office. Ilona Staller is her real name.
The food and atmosphere at this raunchy art deco space live up to her reputation. The restaurant doesn’t take dinner bookings, ostensibly so that locals can drop in any time. That formula worked at Cicciolina for 17 years, says Dight.
Redmond, the executive chef at both restaurants, worked in Cairns and Noosa in her life before Cicciolina. When she arrived in Melbourne in 1993, Redmond was the only chef to answer the job advertisement. She bought into the restaurant a year later and the trio have run the successful partnership ever since. “And coming up to 18 years later, we are all still friends,” she says.
The food at Cicciolina has always been French-inspired, but at Ilona, it’s more casual, with a strong focus on peasant-style dishes that make the most of modern European trends and the use of spices.
Magical mosaic: Grilled hapuka fillet (top right)served with potato gnocchi, soy beans, buttered baby turnips, spinach and a marron bisque butter.
“At Ilona we have more stations, so we can have more chefs working at the one time, which allows for diversity,” says Redmond. There’s no defined seasonal menu. “We are more likely to change the dishes on a whim. If someone comes up with an idea, we will put it on and see how it goes.”
The menu features a short list of bar snacks, suited to a quick catch-up, or to stave off hunger until a table becomes vacant. (An upstairs bar opens this week.)
There are freshly shucked oysters with champagne-shallot dressing, warm olives, arancini, or parmesan-crumbed lamb cutlets. Drinkers with a bit of bravado will select the bee sting – a fried jalapeno chilli filled with feta, lime and pine nuts. It will taste even better after a few drinks.
Entrées include a salumi share plate and a salad of lamb’s tongue, but the specials, which included lamb cigars with a quince aioli and a pork belly salad,?beckoned.
Generous slabs of juicy, braised, crisp-skinned pork belly arrived on a bed of julienned apple, whitlof and watercress, splashed with red-wine vinaigrette. It’s a standout dish and a regular on the specials board.
Coffee lovers: White chocolate and caffe latte bombe with prunes and espresso syrup.
Main choices include traditional and more inventive pasta dishes, ideal for a local, plus two beef, one fish, one lamb and one chicken choice.
The fish, a grilled hapuka fillet, is prettily presented and sits on a mosaic of potato gnocchi, soy beans, spinach and buttered baby turnips. The flavours are brought together by a subtle marron bisque butter.
The roasted lamb loin is served with tzatziki, sautéed chard, a beetroot galette and a mustard and pistachio crumble; all great flavour combinations.
Desserts are “special occasion” and include a peach soufflé, a warm chocolate fondant and a honey pannacotta with marsala jelly.
We tackled the white chocolate and caffe latte bombe (bombe Alaska), with poached prunes and espresso syrup. A delicate covering of meringue sweetens the rich coffee and white chocolate layers of parfait custard and the decorative, rehydrated prunes have been poached in a heavy espresso and sugar syrup. It’s excellent, but strictly for coffee lovers.
Cicciolina’s success was comfortable and long-term, so why the new restaurant? “I guess we wanted to put our money where our mouth was,” says Redmond. “We wanted to see if we still had it in us.” They do.
Lamb and pine nut filo cigars with tahini yoghurt, quinoa and parsley salad.
Busy, sexy and a little bit alternative, Ilona Staller has embraced the best elements of Carlisle Street’s eclectic food and shopping precinct and added its own palpable lusciousness. Fabulous service, by staff who clearly enjoy working there, up-to-the-moment food and an approachable wine list will ensure it becomes a destination restaurant, rather than just a popular local, making bookings worth considering.
Ilona Staller, 282-284 Carlisle Street, Balaclava
Phone \ 9534 0488
Chef \ Virginia Redmond
Prices \ Bar snacks $4.50-$12.50; entrées $14.50-$20.50; mains $23.50-38.50; desserts $3.50-$18.50
Open\ Monday to Saturday noon-1am; Sunday noon-11pm
From its rich, chocolate walls, ornamented by glowing cherry-red wall sconces, to its lusciously curved bar illuminated by vivid green neon lights, this suburban restaurant oozes sex appeal; just like its namesake. Faux tiger-skin bar stools and intimate booths add to the atmosphere, as does the nightclub closeness of the patrons crowded around the bar. There’s a cultivated ’50-’60s New York feel, but it’s not forced. The corner building was a bank in one life and a Red Rooster outlet in another. Homage is paid to both: one in an image of a crowing cockerel on the wall, the other in an acknowledgement on the menu.