Sometimes sequels are not that good. Die Hard 2 was not a patch on Die Hard 1 and don’t get me started on the mess that was Speed 2: Cruise Control...
It was with this in mind that I took a tentative step inside Ilona Staller – the new St Kilda East restaurant by the good people behind Cicciolina – one of my favourite restaurants in St Kilda.
As many of your learned readers will know, Cicciolina is named after a Hungarian porn star with her stage name of “La Cicciolina”. Her actual name is Anna Ilona Staller which is the source of the rather oddly named restaurant.
While Cicciolina is fairly nondescript with its small Acland Street frontage and dark side entrance, Ilona Staller operates from an imposing art deco building on the corner of Carlise and Nelson Streets near Balaclava station.
It is an exciting building to behold and stepping beyond the threshold takes you into a small entrance foyer with the main restaurant in front and a set of stairs to the right taking you up to a small upstairs bar and what looks like a private function room. Before continuing to comment on the restaurant, I must say that the upstairs bar needs some work. There is a small bar set in the side of the room with chairs and couches spread awkwardly around the room. It is echoey and on the night I visited lacked atmosphere. The bar is important to get right particularly as like its Acland street sister, there is a no bookings policy in the evening and you should expect at least a half hour wait on busy nights.
Moving through to the restaurant, it is clear that there has been a lot of investment and thought to make it a well designed space. Wood panelled banquettes curve around the room with an elegant bar on the other side. There is a touch of fifties glamour with the room, particularly the leopard print bar chairs and neon lighting. It all works very well.
Service is excellent and within moments of being seated drinks order has been taken and menus delivered. The menu is thoughtful and manages to hit the price point for an upmarket bistro which allows for quality produce and preparation but will not leave you upset come bill time.
On the night I went, we started with a special for entree of crab cakes which were delicate, filling yet not heavy or doughy like crab cakes can be. This was washed down with a crisp Italian Pinot Grigio. I am not usually one for tradition however for my main dish my eye kept coming back to the individual traditional lasagne. After assurances from our waiter that it was excellent I took the plunge and was not disappointed. The lasagne comes baked in an individual clay ramekin which allows for a perfectly crisp top hiding luscious rich meat and pasta beneath. It exuded the soft warmth of the cheese and pasta, the mouth filling hit of veal and the tangy after note of red wine. I will go as far to say as it was the best lasagne I have had the pleasure of tasting so far and was complemented with, of course, a equally delicious bottle of Chianti.
Dessert was excellent too and ours took the form of a cheesecake parfait with passionfruit curd and a lime sherbet marshmallow. The richness of the cheesecake was offset by the chilled temperature of the parfait and the lime sherbet added a zest to the dish – a very original and excellent way to end the meal.
Service throughout the experience was smooth and unobtrusive and the overall cost was in line with high end bistro pricing at around $120 for two including wine.
For those on the east side of St Kilda Road, this great addition to the Carlisle street dining scene means you do not have to go to Cicciolina for your Italian bistro experience. If we were to compare Ilona Staller to other successful sequels, you have to aim as high as The Empire Strikes Back or Toy Story 2 to come close.