Things are looking up at Star City. The Star, as it's now called, has invested heavily in offering bold new food and drink ventures, which means that for diners, the odds have gone from a crapshoot to blackjack. That is to say, the house still holds all the cards, but if you're canny, you've got a shot at coming out ahead, and you're sure to have plenty of fun along the way.
Four very different new restaurants lead the charge, and they're complemented by a lifting of the game in the bars and food court. Adriano Zumbo has a wild new pâtisserie (inspired by the boardgame Mouse Trap) that confirms his Wonka-esque tendencies, with a self-effacing bit of neon flashing "I HEART ZUMBO" out the front and caramelised pumpkin seed "Zumbarons" (Zumbo macarons, that is, folks) inside. Peter Kuruvita and the Flying Fish gang have staked out the food court with their Flying Fish & Chips, and they're joined by the likes of Gelato Messina and soup-bun specialists Din Tai Fung. The real high rollers, though, are Momofuku Seiobo, Black by Ezard, and Balla. (Sokyo, a modern-Japanese restaurant from Japanese-American Nobu alumnus Chase Kojima, was opening just as we went to print. Expect "chilled-out sounds" from a resident DJ to accompany your tuna sashimi with plum wine jelly.)
As the only established international name in the mix, New York chef David Chang's Momofuku is the most significant of the openings. It's the most ambitious, and it's also, in many ways, the most problematic. It seats very few people (about 30 at last count) and accepts reservations only through its maddening website. It's a prescriptive sort of process, allowing bookings of one, two or four people 10 days out. It's an introduction that will alienate many potential diners who will quickly grow frustrated with seeing a screen full of booked-out reservation slots, or who prefer to choose when they can eat rather than be told. On the other hand, this is Sydney, a place where a Saturday table at Quay or Tetsuya's can involve months of planning, where people queue for everything from Mamak to Porteño, and where the offer of a table at either six or 10 at Rockpool Bar & Grill is met with a kind of grim acceptance.
Compared with other Australian restaurants of similar culinary ambition, too, Momofuku offers little in terms of creature comforts. Money has been spent here, but most of it appears to have been lavished on the kitchen, a thing of gleaming beauty. It's best viewed from the stools at the wide timber bar ringing it, where most customers are seated. There are regular tables and chairs in the dark space, but they're clearly not where the fun is. Close-set metal bars line the floor-to-ceiling glass down one side. They serve to screen the restaurant from the glow of the casino and would be a real boon in the event of a zombie attack but otherwise add little in terms of aesthetics. There's no view, and the sole toilet is reached via the scullery. The key decorative elements, apart from a vast print of rippled water, are two photographs of Angus Young, the guitarist from AC/DC. The band's music features occasionally in a carefully curated playlist that successfully mixes everything from folktronica favourites The Beta Band to New York MCs Nas and the Beastie Boys.
It's not, in short, a restaurant for everybody. So why bother? In a word, the food. Over the various 15-course meals I ate before I wrote this review, I didn't encounter a single serious technical flaw, and almost every plate held a combination of ingredients or an idea that was new to me. And I say that as a long-time fan of the Momofuku operation who has given the menus at each of the four New York restaurants a good tilt. The produce has been sourced with care and deployed with consideration. In conception, Seiobo most closely resembles Momofuku Ko, meaning it's all about a set dégustation menu of many small courses serviced by a high ratio of chefs to diners. This may come as a disappointment to fans of Momofuku Ssäm Bar who were hoping for a more flexible, casual (and way less expensive) Momofuku of their own here in Sydney.
But wow, the food is good. A shrunken version of the restaurants' signature take on the pork belly bun gets things off to a cracking start, two perfect lush bites of neatly squared fatty meat in a pillowy bun set off with pickled cucumber, hoisin and Sriracha. Ribbons of celtuce stem (a crunchy relative of the lettuce), briny samphire and little smears of puréed warrigal greens set off the almost crunchy white flesh of almost raw Tasmanian trumpeter belly. Miso saltiness, a carefully judged lemon purée, charry spring onions and Sichuan pepper bring out the sweetness in both asparagus and marron. A garnish of diced braised tripe makes for a surprising and effective textural twist.
Chang's food is frequently described as Korean-American, but though American and Korean techniques and ingredients appear on his menus (noticeably less so at Seiobo), it's the rising sun that has long been his guiding star. The clarity of a bowl of eel dashi is testament to his fidelity to that touchstone, but the addition of fresh chickpeas (which add little to the dish) and the complementary plate of little crisp cylinders of eel brandade, apple gel and powdered apple (which add a tremendous amount) show he is at the same time anything but orthodox in how he applies these ideas.
It's the same with the egg dish, which takes the basic idea of atsuyaki tamago, the sweet style of omelette used in sushi restaurants, and turns it on its head, plating it like a barely set small pale yellow custard. It sighs under the spoon, and the counterpoint of a very little roasted rice, matcha tea and a splash of intensely reduced chicken stock might be the transcendent highlight of the whole meal. Or is that the buttery combination of peppered swimmer and spanner crab with a wee Yorkshire pudding? Or the equally buttery beautiful hand-torn pasta dish, studded with bright bursts of mint oil, chilli and pickled tomatoes under a foam of goat's cheese and a garnish of fried basil leaves?
There's a restless tweaking of the dishes. The cheese course, if you can call it that, marries finely grated pecorino, honey licorice, and a honeycomb-print star anise nougatine crunch with a jelly made from mead one week, cider the next. What's consistent (and utterly exciting) is the bizarre way the meal is concluded. After two desserts - wattleseed meringues and malt ice-cream topped with crisp, caramelly milk skin, and a quietly pretty little bowl of roasted rice pudding, miso ice-cream, pickled and dehydrated strawberries and nubbins of mochi - out comes the pork. Hulking great hanks of shoulder, with just the right ratio of fat to lean, fresh from several hours of cooking to gooey tenderness in salt and a substantial amount of sugar. It's bonkers, and completely wonderful.
The floor team is engaging and friendly, and the drink pairings, devised by sommelier Richard Hargreave and grape guru Charles Leong, keep pace with the kitchen. Altogether, it's a combination that's unique in Australia, about as far from a generic pre-packaged international corporate restaurant roll-out as you can get, and precisely the last thing you'd expect to find in a casino. The bookings process is almost uniquely annoying, but persevere and you'll find profit. It's fine dining with (almost) all the nonsense and pretentiousness thrown out, and all the good stuff kept in.
Black by Ezard is The Star's nearest analogue to the new-Vegas steakhouse, a big restaurant with an impressive bar and a range of deluxe meats and fishes on offer. There's even an American tilt to the wine list. Teage Ezard, a chef known best in Melbourne for his East-meets-West dining at Ezard on Flinders Lane, and for East-meets-drinks at the much-loved Gingerboy, is an unusual choice for The Star. His is not a household name north of the Murray, and his reputation back home hasn't been based on grill cookery. He's the wildcard in this particular deck.
The look is shiny and, well, black. The bar is a thing of beauty, and a draw in itself. In the dining room, tables line the windows, but the booth seating is where it's at.
The menu presents some questions. Chief among the real head-scratchers are these: is the sentence "Our signature seafood main courses are poached in Hawaiian ocean water before being served" put there simply for the amusement of bored gamblers in need of a laugh? And is there any good reason to cook a steak sous vide - that is, to cryovac it and poach it gently in a water bath - before charring it on the woodfired grill? From the evidence I've seen at Black, the answer, to my palate, is a no for the latter. Much of the flavour of a well-grilled steak comes from the smoke caused by fat and juices falling into the coals. Surely pre-cooking the steaks, then, and giving them only a quick turn on the fire to char the outside limits their exposure to this vital step?
Execution is a concern for me with the fish, too. Say what you will about the conceptual issues relating to poaching fish in sea water shipped to Sydney from the Hawaiian ocean floor, the product on the plate - or at least what I was served - does little to dispel the sense that it's the height of frou-frou silliness. A really good piece of hapuka that has been handled and poached with the kind of expert care you'd expect when you're paying $45 for the pleasure will fall in fat, defined pearlescent flakes. It will offer no hint of dryness. This was not that fish. Parcelled out over the plate in chunks, it's also paired with quite a lot of caulflower, effectively masking the nuances of flavour in a sweet-fleshed fish. It's a lot of work for the kitchen that doesn't offer an amazing pay-off to the diner. It's all the more puzzling when you consider the special of scarlet prawns offered the same night. Ezard serves these gigantic creatures split and grilled, their ochre tomalley and charred sweet meat laid bare across the plate. They are perfect. Hawaiian sea water, though? It's not the sort of thing you'd expect to see in a top-flight restaurant in Sydney in 2011. It's the sort of thing you'd expect in, well, a casino.
Stefano Manfredi's Balla, however, confounds all kinds of expectations. Between Luigi Rosselli's design - which beautifully references the paintings of the restaurant's Futurist namesake - and sharp graphics from design firm Frost, Balla makes a bold statement in favour of Italy's contribution to the definition of 20th-century cool. More Vespa than Verdi, more Marcello Mastroianni than Michelangelo.
This is not about the food of today's Futurists of cuisine, however, with their foams and mousses, and nor is it just like Nonna used to make. It strikes a neat balance between a classical grounding and a contemporary sensibility, turning a traditional insistence on simplicity and freshness into a modern-day elegance that entirely befits a restaurant of its class.
Take the grilled duck breast, Treviso, balsamic: three ingredients, bang, bang, bang. In the charry bitter leaves and the thick, glossy vinegar, you've got two different takes on sour-sweetness. Each of them alone makes a jazzy accompaniment to the expertly rendered-and-crisped skin of the duck; together they're a symphony. And from just three essential ingredients. It's a great dish.
The cuisines of Italy's north dominate the menu whether in inspiration (ribollita, Tuscany's bread and kale soup, say, in a gutsy, soul-warming rendition) or in accent (the Tuscan oil on the superb slow-cooked octopus and potato, the Barbera used to braise the ox-cheek), but there's also mulloway with a more southern-sounding pairing of pine nuts, spinach and sultanas, while wood-grilled Yamba prawns are teamed with caponata, and burrata, the pride of Puglia, makes an appearance with tomato fillets and artichokes.
The wine list is all Italian (if you count the handful of bottles of Australian-grown Italian grapes). That's a bold move in itself, and bolder still, there's plenty of kooky stuff on offer made by adherents of natural winemaking from Friuli, Emilia-Romagna and Alto Adige. A glass of the lightly sparkling, excitingly fresh and dry Donati malvasia rosé taken with the grilled quail with pickled radicchio makes a resounding argument in favour of the potential these wines have to make a good dish great.
A restaurant run by a Lombardian chef with a reputation for cooking very good risotto prompts certain expectations. Namely that the risotto will be of an exacting texture, each grain of rice distinct, even after having given up its starch to thicken the sauce binding it, each grain still with the little give to the tooth Italians term al dente. Reading that the risotto is made with such-and-such lah-de-dah rice and being told by the waiter that the risotto is cooked to order and will take X minutes only serves to heighten such expectations. Which makes the squishiness of the rice all the more curious when it comes to the table. The ribbons of cuttlefish and panes of pungent bottarga folded through it are above reproach. I don't know if team Manfredi have chosen to serve their risotto this way, or if it was an oversight, but neither answer is entirely satisfactory when it's your dinner.
The maccheroncini is its polar opposite among the carbs. Sauced with yabby meat, garnished with a head and claws and scattered with sesame seeds, it's a unique dish, executed with confidence. If I'm not mistaken, I think it was last seen gracing a Manfredi menu at Manta in Woolloomooloo. There's more than a dash of brilliance in the frittelle di riso con crema alla vaniglia, too. Yep: rice-pudding fritters, crisp and creamy in all the right ways.
Where Black seems a confused thing, a steakhouse that doesn't do great steak and isn't an especially great reflection of what Teage Ezard's cooking is all about, Balla is all Manfredi. Manfredi has never lacked vision, and Balla is his vision splendid, bold, beautiful and fun. In time, I hope to see the odds of getting an impressive meal at Black improve; for now, my money's on Balla and Seiobo, triumphs of personality both.