It’s out of the fire and back into the frying pans for a popular neighbourhood Dunedin restaurant. Simon Farrell-Green pays a visit – just in time for dinner – to the recently reopened No. 7 Balmac.
Within a few days, it became obvious there was more than a bit of work to do to reopen. “The bar was removed, wall linings pulled out, the ceiling was taken off and all the wiring went,” says Toovey. “Everything was taken out.”
The restaurant opened a temporary space on the Octagon, down the hill in the city centre, with a cut-down menu by head chef Penny Allan and some furniture salvaged from the restaurant. “We went through the menu and said, ‘Okay, what works?’ Then Penny threw in a couple of dishes and we floated it within two weeks. It was an opportunity for her to play around with the food. Just a little menu and a tiny wine list.”
Customers supported the move initially, though as the months wore on, along with a protracted battle with the insurance company over everything from light switches to structural changes, they started to say how much they missed the old site. “I started doing the maths – how long are you going to live?” says Toovey, laughing. “And customers started saying, ‘I do like it, but it’s not as good as No. 7 Balmac.’”
By the end, Toovey and her team felt a bit the same way. Specifically, they missed the wood grill.
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Toovey started No. 7 Balmac a decade ago after being out of the restaurant game a few years. Previously, she’d owned Abalone, which had one of the first late licences in the city, and then Nova, the lovely all-day cafe in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.
After five years at home with three school-age kids – Leni is now 25, Semisi, 22 and Lusia, 19 – Toovey created No. 7 Balmac as a more sedate, grown-up spot in a quiet corner of the hillside suburb. “I just wanted to get back into a restaurant,” she says over dinner in the newly reopened restaurant with her husband, Kim Maiai, a GP. The lights are low, there’s Steely Dan on the stereo, and the place has a muted, pleasant buzz on a cold winter’s night. “It was all very intuitive. I wanted to have a garden, I wanted it to be in a neighbourhood and I wanted it to have a wood grill.”
At the time, it was a bit of a risky move – there was little else in the Māori Hill area, and Dunedin didn’t really do neighbourhood restaurants. “But I’d been in the city and I’d seen it late at night,” she says. “I’d grown up a bit, I suppose, and where I wanted to go was an extension of your own front room.”
By the time of the fire, it was a busy, relaxed local. Toovey had refitted the place with help from Auckland-based designers Emily Priest and Nat Cheshire of Cheshire Architects, who also conceived her other restaurant, Esplanade at St Clair. By then, her kids had left home and Maiai had recently quit his job to become a locum. “We thought with one child in Wellington and two in Auckland, we could just go there [Auckland] for a while, Kim could locum and I could run the business remotely,” she says. “And then all the plans stopped.”
Now, it’s as if everything has changed, but it’s also as if nothing has changed. She worked again with Cheshire and together they changed the layout, moving the kitchen downstairs to open up the dining space; there’s a moody, dark palette of blue, with a deep-red marble bar. The original bentwood chairs are back, re-covered with leather salvaged from the original banquette seating.
The food still centres around the wood-fired grill, though head chef Penny Allan – whose husband Billy was the chef for its first 10 years – has injected a few changes. There’s a soufflé that has been on the menu the whole time, local fish and a roasted half-chicken. But there are some updates too: a wonderful plate of meatballs with a roasted tomato sauce; wood-grilled octopus and coriander yoghurt with an eggplant pickle; and wild-shot venison saltimbocca – flavours that are a bit gutsier, closer to Sydney-raised Allan’s Middle Eastern heritage.
The wine list, which has always supported local, consists almost entirely of wines from Central Otago. “There’s such choice,” Toovey says. “The sub-regions provide this variation. If you want something more mellow, softer, you’ll get a Gibbston Valley. If you want a deeper, almost cabernet style, then you get a Bannockburn.”
On a cold winter’s night, the restaurant still glows, a warm beacon on the hill. You walk in, and stencilled onto the glass door are the words, “No. 7 Balmac – Welcome Home.” Indeed.
No. 7 Balmac's Tandoori Paste recipe
This is the recipe used on our octopus skewers. We braise the octopus tentacles for two hours, then smother them in this marinade, and bake a further 20 minutes before skewering the octopus and barbecuing it on our wood grill.
The marinade also works well with mushrooms or chicken. Bake in the tandoori paste and, once ready to serve, finish on your barbecue at home. Both can be made in advance and work well together to create a flavourful, Indian-inspired meal.
- 10cm ginger
- 10 cloves garlic
- Small piece fresh turmeric
- 2 cups thick, plain yoghurt
- 1 Tbsp coriander seeds
- ½ Tbsp fennel seeds
- ¾ Tbsp turmeric powder
- 1¼ Tbsp Kashmiri chilli powder or chilli powder
- ⅓ cup white wine vinegar
- 3 Tbsp vegetable oil
- ¼ cup tomato paste
1. Puree the ginger, garlic and fresh turmeric with some of the yoghurt till very fine.
2. Toast and grind the seeds.
3. Mix all ingredients together and leave to stand for a few hours.
Easy Flatbread recipe
- 500g flour
- 75g butter, softened
- 1 cup hot water
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp sugar
1. Mix ingredients with a dough hook till smooth. Roll into two tight, tidy logs. Place in an airtight container and refrigerate till firm.
2. Slice the log into eight equal rounds. Place each slice flat on the bench, roll to about 20cm long.
3. Place on a baking sheet and bake in a 200°C oven for about 5 minutes or till puffed up.
4. To serve, flash-fry pieces of flatbread in a hot pan till scorched, brush with melted ghee and sprinkle with sea salt.
No. 7 Balmac Chocolate Torte recipe
Serves 12-15 comfortably
- 500g good-quality chocolate
- 60ml vegetable oil
- 6 eggs
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 cup cream
- 2 Tbsp rum, brandy or whisky
- 180g Whittaker’s Dark Ghana
- 1 cup cream
To make the torte
1. In a large bowl, melt chocolate and oil over a pot of simmering water. Don’t allow the water to touch the bowl.
2. In a separate bowl, mix eggs, sugar, cream and alcohol.
3. Add warm, melted chocolate and whisk till smooth.
4. Pour into a double-lined waterproof tin, rectangle or square, around 18cm x 18cm.
5. Place the tin in a bain-marie, then place a sheet of baking paper directly on the cake; this helps it not form a crust.
6. Bake at 160°C for 1-1.5 hours till set but wobbly in the centre.
To make the ganache
1. While the torte cools, mix the dark chocolate and pouring cream over a pot of simmering water until smooth.
2. Pour warm ganache over the cooled torte and wait for it to set.
Once set, use a long knife (warmed in hot water then wiped dry) to cut torte into portions. Clean and dry the knife in-between each cut.
Serve with unsweetened whipped cream, clotted cream or crème fraîche and roasted fruit.