Wander unawares from Waltham’s restaurant-rich Moody Street into Balani, and you’d never guess a space that looks so comfortably lived-in opened a mere few months ago. The room, a surprisingly deep, 120-seat space divided by tall curtains into multiple seating areas (spacious bar, lounge with low-slung sofas and chairs, conventional dining room) has beautiful old bones in the form of dark carved teak columns, railings and paneling. These are relics of a long-bygone Thai restaurant, but along with flatteringly dim lighting, copious hanging plants and flowers, vividly painted walls, colorful artwork (including surreal works by local painter/collagist Karen Moss), hand-painted (and glittered) menus, a good fake fireplace and uniformly sweet, affable service, it feels like a groovy, upmarket neighborhood tavern-with-food that has been around for years.
Chef/owner Dave Becker and his executive chef Tim Fichera have assembled a menu that combines gussied-up gastropub fare, elegantly prepared seafood, a few dishes that appear to have wandered in from Becker’s other restaurants—beloved Needham Italian hangout Sweet Basil and Wellesley small-plates Mediterranean spot Juniper—plus a couple of Asian-inspired dishes for good measure. There’s a lot of comfort-food starch and fat here, generally elevated by excellent smoking and deep-frying chops. Amid the duck poutine and crispy smoked pork ribs and a pork belly-topped burger, there are pretty, precisely plated crudos and panisses. Similar to the ambiance, the food simultaneously embodies coziness and flashes of arty adornment, like the lovely handmade pottery most dishes are served on.
Thus monkfish kofta ($12), four crunchy-outside, tender-inside fish croquettes with great smoke flavor, are lined up atop a punchy paprika mayo with some vivid dill relish (minced pickles, basically, with a lemon to squeeze over them). Pork belly mandu ($12) boasts more fine smoke flavor inside properly Korean-shaped, nicely pan-browned dumplings, though accents of sweet, baking-spiced apple butter and fried sage are more New England autumn than Seoul winter. Slow-cooked octopus ($14) has fabulous grill-charred flavor over a lovely, tangibly dressed salad of fresh favas and tomatoes, marred only by a tender-verging-on-mushy inner texture that hints at prior freezing. Sea scallop crudo ($14) totters further off-balance, the delicate raw shellfish clobbered by an overly aggressive charred-grapefruit sauce. Meanwhile, chickpea fries ($9) present as a Lincoln Log-like stack done with exquisite technique, crisp without and melting within, plus there’s subtle fire and tartness from paprika sumac mayo and a little grated manchego on top to gild the lily.
Entrees include a short rib stir-fry ($22) over housemade spaghetti, loaded with alternately crisp and tender shreds of beef and bits of cabbage, mushrooms and cashews, plus a soft-cooked egg on top. Between the short-rib fat and the stirred-in egg, this big bowl is nearly creamy enough to recall a stroganoff punched up with slices of fresh red chilies, a superb comfort dish. Great fry jobs elevate both crispy adobo fried chicken ($23) with a pair of crunchy biscuits, chorizo gravy and a side of braised collards, as well as katsu don ($24), a huge pork cutlet with herby, peppery togarashi in the breading, topped with another soft egg and flanked by fried rice. Two fish dishes wow with vivid flavors and sophisticated prep: a hefty, expertly cooked whole black sea bass ($28) with smashing sides (celeriac puree and green beans dusted with dukka amandine) over a mustardy wine sauce, and arctic char a la plancha ($28), a crisp skin-on, just-undercooked fillet encircled by a pretty stripe of beet dressing and sided by fascinatingly smoky, deep-flavored beluga lentils that were so good we ordered an extra side of them ($6). Desserts include loukoumades ($10), spheres of sweet fried dough done Boston cream style, with good chocolate sauce and pastry cream that would have been even better if they were served separately instead of being allowed to puddle together, and a large, wickedly rich slice of date cake ($11) that recalls sticky toffee pudding in cake form, embellished with a lovely dusting of flaky salt.
The bar program demonstrates wit without straying too far from an unassuming formula, exemplified by specialty cocktails like the Blue Rose ($12), essentially a chili-spiked, salt-edged margarita the color of Windex, and the Banshee Beet ($12), like a beet-infused Negroni with an oversized ice cube that makes for an uncharacteristically short pour here. There’s a slightly nerdy list of 14 beers ($3-$10) and a tight, humble wine list with 27 options ($9-$16 by the glass and $30-$180 bottles, most in the $40s). We found joy and value in a 2017 Domaine Beausejour Cuvée Vincent ($42), a bright, light-bodied, purplish gamay noir from the Loire Valley. By the early-ish end of the night—Waltham rolls up its sidewalks a little sooner than Boston—we’d been quite won over by Balani’s eclectic, earthy, occasionally refined food, its eager-to-please approach to beverages, the spacious, shaggy comfort of its finely framed, timeworn digs and genial-to-a-fault service (including an owner who will occasionally park at your table for an extended conversation). It turns out that “balani” is Tagalog for “charming,” and boy, does that unpretentious, funky, polychrome shoe ever fit. ◆
Smoky monkfish kofta
Short rib stir-fry
Crispy adobo fried chicken
Whole black sea bass
Arctic char a la plancha
Balani, 469 Moody St., Waltham, (781-472-2805) balaniwaltham.com; Hours: Tue.-Sat., 5-10 pm, bar till 11 pm; Liquor: Full; Reservations: Yes; Parking: Nearby metered spaces and public lots