Where to Balani, the latest venture from chef Dave Becker (Sweet Basil in Needham, Juniper in Wellesley) on Waltham’s restaurant row along Moody Street.
What for Small plates, snacks, dumplings, pizzas, and jazzy entrees in a cavernous space made more intimate with floor-to-ceiling curtains to cordon off seating areas for large groups.
The scene You’re greeted by a traditional female Thai statue, called Miss Balani by the staff, who is holding a hot-pink boom box and the restaurant’s take-out menus and business cards. Behind her is a fireplace lit with neon LED lights and more Asian figurines. Staff found the Asian pieces in the basement and speculate that they were left by Erawan of Siam many years ago, and ignored by successors Nonna’s Italian Bar & Grill and Raffaele’s Ristorante. The friendly bar is filled with locals, some of whom have become regulars in the month since Balani opened.
What you’re eating Tempting nibbles and mains with flashy flavors from around the globe. Puffy chickpea fries with paprika-sumac mayo and grated manchego, called panisses in Provence, are long, slender rectangles, stacked like logs, crisp outside and quite creamy inside. Chicken liver manti, a Turkish specialty, tiny pasta pot-stickers wrapped around a rich pate, are drizzled with pomegranate syrup. The burger is griddled and smashed and slipped into a house-made potato bun with crisp pork belly, cheddar, and Thousand Island dressing; outstanding fries accompany it. Also on the menu is pulled short-rib stir-try with homemade spaghetti, crispy adobe fried chicken, grilled octopus over fava beans, and Arctic char with smoky beluga lentils and glazed carrots.
Care for a drink? The wine list is a pretty even split of Old World and New; a serviceable but unadventurous line-up. Nothing here to make the heart race. The Druid cocktail, with rye, lemon, and bitters that taste like grapefruit, melts the chill on a freezing night.
Overheard “Train Song” by Vashti Bunyan is on the sound system — “It’s so many miles and so long since I’ve met you/Don’t even know what I’ll find when I get to you” — but her voice cannot drown out the cellphone conversation between a very angry young woman at the bar and someone on the other end who stood her up. The bartender acts like she sees this all the time (perhaps she has). One customer wonders out loud: “Is it going to snow? I have a little plastic shovel in my car just in case. I also have a backpack with stuff, also just in case.” A woman with her sweater pushed off one shoulder, which she keeps pushing off a little more, says to a friend, “What’s up, you? Isn’t this fun?” A man in a sweatshirt peering over a plate of duck poutine with cheddar curds, duck gravy, and a sunny-side up duck egg, says, “Oh my gosh, it’s so good. It tastes so much better than it sounds.” His friend: “I’ve never understood poutine.” Two women greet one another: “I haven’t seen you in forever! Or you me!” 469 Moody St., Waltham, 781-472-2805, www.balaniwaltham.com