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Don't be fooled. You may hear that Baduzzi is a meatball restaurant. It's not. Baduzzi is run by the same team as The Grove. That's what you need to know.
We turned up with a few kids in tow because we all know meatballs are an easy sell to kids. The 10-year-old is now a crayfish convert. The 8-year-old suddenly prefers his meatballs made with wagyu beef and served with a sophisticated onion gravy and salsa verde, thank you very much.
"Food of the People" say the signs outside this new North Wharf eatery. Open the big, bright red door and step from the street into the dining room of Baduzzi and you'll sense it immediately. This is one small step for the people, one giant leap for the level of dining on offer in this precinct.
The Paul Izzard design is impeccable, there's bespoke wallpaper throughout and a stained-glass window sourced from an 18th century town hall in the south of France sheds its colourful shadows into the restaurant, while a temperature-controlled cellar houses massive wheels of parmigiano reggiano and cured meats alongside some of owner Michael Dearth's precious wine collection, all of which adds to the sense that this new restaurant is serious about every aspect of providing a memorable dining experience.
Everything smacks of quality, yet the atmosphere is a far cry from stuffy or pretentious. The menu, with its reasonably priced sections for pasta, polpette (meatballs), secondi (mains) and a kids' menu, gives little sign of the sophistication of the food that will follow.
Executive chef is Ben Bayly, backed up in the kitchen by head chef Glen File (ex Wellington's Osteria del Toro and Boulcott Street Bistro) and pastry chef Juan Balsani.
Together they're creating magic. Flame-grilled sardines, even for the non-sardine lovers at our table, are a hit. Combined with sweet white raisins, pine nuts, dabs of sharp feta and drenched in olive oil, the small fish are served on charred bruschetta and each mouthful is a wonderful explosion of contrasting flavours, creating a harmonious whole.
Crayfish meatballs are soft, sweet and musky and deliriously delicious. We marvelled at the unconventional idea of using such an upmarket crustacean in such a down-home dish as a meatball but the pairing with savoy cabbage, a fine-dining grade carrot puree and braised chickpeas have Bayly's hallmark talent for innovation written all over them.
By contrast, the wagyu meatballs are dripping with tradition in a hearty onion gravy, and I'd not be surprised to hear that the dish derives from an old Dearth family recipe.
Kids' meals, one a handmade buttered pasta and the other a chicken schnitzel with a marinara sauce and a fried egg of all things, were devoured with no complaints whatsoever, perhaps so the bambinos could get back to doing their Mr Meatballs puzzles the restaurant supplies with coloured pens.
A dish of rabbit ravioli is complex and as good as I've tasted. Plump parcels are crammed with rabbit meat and a delicate turnip puree makes you fall in love with this clumsy vegetable.
Nearly as good was the bowl of buttered maltagliati, the name given to haphazard pasta off-cuts, served with a dark ragu of duck and porcini, topped with pickled walnuts and showered with a dusting of sharp parmesan.
A fish stew is gorgeous with a full-bodied stock, laced with crayfish I suspect. How could we eat more? We had to, it was all so irresistible.
Chicken saltimbocca comes as two neat layered rectangles, with a creamy sage sauce and inky green cavolo nero. With each forkful I was in raptures. A gnocchi could have done with less sweetness so as not to mask the haunting flavour of the saffron and the flat iron steak could have had more wood-fired cooking flavour but these were minor details.
To say Dearth is a wine enthusiast is an understatement - he is obsessed with wine! As a result the wine list at Baduzzi is a colourful, independent mix of terrific mostly New Zealand and Italian wines, with a few French and Spanish thrown in.
The cannoli dessert alone is worth going for. Seldom have I had a pastry shell so thin and brittle and the ricotta filling, sweetened with the right ratio of chocolate chips and candied citrus, spilled easily into each heavenly mouthful.
It's hard to imagine a more perfect combination of rustic refinement than the food at Baduzzi. In the detail, Dearth has cleverly captured the essence of a restaurant inspired by family and tradition. Bravo.
From the menu: Sardines $9, crayfish meatballs $16, wagyu meatballs $14, kids' schnitzel $10, kids' pasta $5, rabbit ravioli $15, maltagliati with duck $17, chicken saltimbocca $18, Occitanian fish stew $25, flat iron steak $28, gnocchi $15, cannoli $12, semifreddo $12, tiramisu $12
Drinks: Outstanding wine list