Nello Balan is the owner of Nello, the exceedingly mediocre Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side. He's also one of the city's most shameless—and most notorious—publicity hounds. Balan's latest attempt at drumming up attention, however, now appears to be exploding in his face. Last week, a receipt "surfaced" indicating that Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich had spent $52,000 on lunch. (The bill was for $47,000, but TMZ, which first reported the story, said the billionaire had tacked on a $5,000 tip.) But a spokesman for Abramovich tells us the bill wasn't his and the mogul may pursue legal action against Balan for suggesting otherwise.
Last week's report—which TMZ has since scrubbed from its website—followed two other recent cases where massive bills magically made their way into the hands of the media. First there was fellow Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who allegedly spent $19,000 on lunch two weeks ago. Then there was Jay-Z and Beyoncé, who supposedly spent $1,200 on Dom Perignon, truffles and lobster salad last week.
Naturally, these bills don't make the news because some absent-minded waiter keeps dropping the receipts at the feet of tabloid reporters. They're fed to the media by Balan himself. (Amusingly, when the details of Prokhorov's meal were reported in the pages of the Post, Rich Calder wrote that Balan had "declined to disclose Prokhorov's exact tab," but a "source" had provided the paper with a copy.)
But is Balan just concocting these receipts out of thin air? Abramovich's rep says that the the Russian mogul was, in fact, at Nello's on the date in question. But he didn't spend anything close to what the receipt indicated and he may now take legal action against Balan for spreading the lie. (It would have been a bit of a waste to order all that expensive wine anyway; Abramovich was accompanied by his girlfriend, Dasha Zhukova, who is seven months pregnant.) Here's what John Mann, who heads up corporate communications for Abramovich's London-based holding company, had to say when we asked about the bill:
The $47,000 check for lunch at Nello's in New York on Friday, October 30, 2009, published by various media outlets over the weekend, is in no way connected to Mr. Roman Abramovich. While Mr. Abramovich and five others did dine at Nello's on that date, their total bill amounted to only a couple of percent of that amount. The assertion that they ran up a bill of any greater magnitude is entirely false.
We are in the process of investigating the origins of this inaccurate story, which we have been told was perpetuated by people connected to the restaurant. Our legal counsel has been instructed to review any appropriate action to rectify this situation.
It wouldn't be beyond Balan to make this up. He's tried to bribe reporters in the past, he was once arrested for choking his girlfriend, and he's been investigated for tax evasion. And he might just be desperate enough to conjure up fake receipts considering the financial problems he's had in recent months.
We reached out to Balan for comment, but the normally chatty restaurateur didn't feel like talking. The receptionist who answered the phone said she "didn't think" Balan was there at the moment, then put us on hold for a minute before returning to the line. "Can you call back on Monday? He's in Europe until then." Then she hung up.