After years running two restaurants in Greater Boston focused on Italian and Eastern Mediterranean cuisines, chef Dave Becker has struck up a bit of an experiment in Waltham: His new restaurant Balani is a smorgasbord of flavors, flexible in its identity, with an ever-present aim to serve good, tasty food.
Balani opened at 469 Moody St., Waltham — the former Raffaele’s Ristorante — on Tuesday, October 23, debuting its collection of small plates, entrees, and desserts, all of which offer a variety of flavor profiles.
Becker — who runs the four-year-old Juniper in Wellesley and the nearly two-decade-old Sweet Basil in Needham — signed the lease for the restaurant in July and made a few interior changes, adding some neon flare. The interior features hot pink and purple paint, in addition to some grays and stained wood, plus mercury glass light fixtures and some black leather chairs.
“I’d say it’s evolved from almost goth colors to ’80s fabulous,” Becker told Eater.
Becker brought in Tim Fichera, the executive chef of Juniper, to head up the kitchen at Balani. James Collis, another alum of Becker’s restaurants and former kitchen manager at Blue Ribbon Barbecue, is manning Balani’s portable smoker (among other things) and testing out smoked meats like brisket and pork butt. The restaurant is also making its own potato chips and french fries for poutine, made with duck fat.
The opening menu includes snacks and starters like sea scallop crudo, chickpea fries with paprika-sumac mayo, crispy smoked pork ribs, and a charred pear salad with burnt onions. There’s smoked monkfish kofta and chicken liver manti, as well as several pizzas topped with house-made chorizo, pulled short rib, or grilled pears with squash puree.
The entrees, which range from about $17 to $28, include a smashed burger with frites, katsudon with a soft-cooked egg, scallop paella, and a crispy adobo chicken with bourbon biscuits. For dessert, Balani serves Boston cream loukoumades and two kinds of house-made Pop-Tarts: curried raisin and red bean, made by Lee Prouty, who started out as a bus boy.
“I try to do everything, as much as possible, and include the staff as much as possible, and if somebody — they might be in music school, and I let them play around with whatever they’re doing.”
Becker called his team a “hall of fame” of some of the nicest people he’s ever worked with. The longer he’s in this business, he said, “the less fixated I feel like I am on ego and talent. I’d rather work with a bunch of people where their heart’s in the right place — nice to each other, nice to the guests, nice to me. If anyone comes up with a really good idea, we adopt it as our own.”
By consequence, the menu development was a group effort from Balani’s staff to find “what we like to cook, what we like to eat,” Becker said, and the goal is to be as “nimble” as possible with the menu. “If things aren’t popular we’ll just kind of make them go away.”
The restaurant also has a full liquor license, and Balani’s bar managers have put as much of an emphasis as possible on local sources for beer and wine. There are cocktails and slushies as well.
To start, Balani is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m.
• Balani Restaurant [Instagram]