Golden Balls brought their Sicilian-inspired small plates to Chapel Allerton for a weekend’s residency. Thomas Chalk paid a visit.
Golden Balls have been serving vegetarian and vegan food for the last three years. They’ve had a stint at Trinity Kitchen, hold supper clubs and take their caravan to festivals and private events. Their name comes from their arancini – risotto balls with a breadcrumb coating, deep-fried and golden – that are a mainstay of their menus.
For their kitchen takeover at Seven Arts, they have created a short menu of small plates, which as it turns out is just the right size for three people to order one of everything. (We left satisfyingly full rather than bursting at the seams, although it would be fair to note that we are all quite big eaters.) There were seven savoury dishes – five of them vegan – which we were happy to have arrive as and when they were ready. They came in three waves, following the order of the menu, and whether by accident or design this worked well to make something closer to overlapping courses than an ad hoc conveyor belt: I’m inclined to assume a deliberate hand here – the timing of the dishes’ arrival and the combinations felt nicely considered.
Aubergine caponata bruschetta; beetroot, goat’s cheese, walnut, honey
Caponata is a Sicilian dish that combines aubergine and celery in a tomato sauce, with capers, raisins and sometimes olives, as was the case here. Slightly sweet and sour, it sometimes has a bit of chilli heat. As with so many foods, there is no one definitive recipe (except of course for the way someone’s grandmother used to make it). The Golden Balls version omitted chilli, but for my taste also missed out some of the sweet and sour punch that I would have hoped for. A generous hand with the olives and capers made up for this somewhat, giving depth and bursts of flavour to complement the sweetness of the tomato. The plate had two slices of good bread, toasted lightly crisp, thick enough to support the generous layer of caponata they carried without risk of collapse.
Beetroot and goat’s cheese is a classic combination for good reason, here in the form of roasted red and golden beets dotted with small pieces of crumbly cheese. I would suggest that the balance would not have been upset by the addition of a little more of the cheese, but a delicate hand with the honey and a generous one with the toasted walnuts made for a not-too-sweet dish that had a definite feeling of being a starter – something to pique your interest more than sate your appetite.
Sun-dried tomato arancini, basil and pistachio pesto; squash and sage arancini, gorgonzola fonduta
Golden Balls are right to refer to their arancini in their name: they were masterfully done. The rice was substantial without being heavy and cloying. The sun-dried tomato version was vegan, with just the right amount of tomato to make it satisfyingly savoury, and a pesto that emphasised basil’s peppery depth rather than hiding it behind excessive amounts of oil and garlic as is so often the case. Similarly, the gorgonzola fonduta – a cream of gorgonzola and, I suspect, a bit of the squash – brought just the right amount of the cheese’s blue funk to the squash and sage version. Each portion had three arancini, which was the perfect number for our table to share. But this doesn’t mean I didn’t resent having to share these magnificent little balls of goodness.
Seasonal vegetable fritto misto, aioli; potatoes, artichokes, preserved lemons, basil; lentils, rosemary, kale
The next round brought two wetter dishes and a tangle of deep-fried vegetables.
Fritto misto is the Italian answer to tempura – lightly battered pieces of food. The seasonal vegetables included courgette, pumpkin, broccoli and the surely unseasonal asparagus. Inherently simple (which is not to say easy to make – to Golden Balls’ credit the batter was light, crisp and not at all greasy), this is the kind of dish that would be ruined by a poorly-made dip. The vegan aioli was anything but poorly-made: enough garlic to give it a warm hum and to stand up to the vegetables, without being so aggressive as to mask them or bludgeon your tongue into submission.
Baby new potatoes and sweet pieces of onion sat in a light broth, heady with the perfume of preserved lemons and spiked with chilli, topped with a vegan cream of artichokes. I wondered whether there might be too much of the broth, making the dish watery. Then I tasted it, and immediately began plotting how of the three of us, I would be the one left holding the spoon and the bowl when the potatoes ran out.
Lentils and kale made for a dish that on its own would have risked feeling more worthy than heartily satisfying, but which complemented the potatoes and lemon well, bringing an earthiness that could stand up to the lemons’ more sunny disposition. Rich with rosemary, and perhaps red wine, this was a stew with depth. Some of the lentils were, to my taste, only just the right side of being cooked, but on the whole the toothsome nuttiness of the pulses was very welcome.
Gorgonzola with figs; rice pudding and Nutella arancini with ice cream
While vegans were well-served by the savoury dishes, neither dessert option was available (Seven Arts’ bar had its regular array of cakes set out, though we didn’t check if any were vegan). Having eaten everything on the earlier portion of the menu, it seemed only right to complete the set. Gorgonzola with figs, even more so that the fritto misto, was a dish whose inherent simplicity (two ingredients, as per its name) meant there was no place to hide for a weak element. The gorgonzola was just right – room temperature rather than cold, but the fig slices lacked just a little of the sweetness and juiciness that makes a really good one the perfect partner to the cheese’s salty, dairy richness.
The single arancino (apologies – I know just enough Italian to be picky about the grammar here!) with a Nutella filling was as well-made as its earlier counterparts. The Italian reverence for Nutella slightly escapes me – it’s neither chocolatey nor hazelnutty enough for me – but the spread was nicely served by its encasement in cinnamon-inflected rice. While I may wish that I had foregone dessert in favour of another round of one or other (or, let’s be honest, both) of the savoury arancini, this was a nice finish to an enjoyable and memorable trip around Sicilian inspiration.
Feature photograph by Cath Kane.