The Harbour Club. 4/5, Quarry Wharf. Valletta.
My experiences of Malta throughout the years have taught me that the islanders like to keep the best things for themselves, and in this vein, everything is a closely guarded secret. If you speak to the right person who is willing to divulge a recent fortunate find or happen to stumble across it quite by accident then you are in luck. The Harbour Club is no exception, and I am quite glad as I would be disappointed if I couldn’t get a table here whenever I wanted.
Our table on the terrace overlooked the Grand Harbour and it’s a remarkable sight, part industrial with ocean tankers scattered in clear view as well as a cruise liner making an occasional appearance, but a view that can make you disregard your dinner companions completely.
When the menus arrived I was relieved to see that it was brief. It is a real worry when you see over fifteen starters and main courses, as there is no way a small kitchen can produce a menu of such a size in any decent quality.
To begin with I ordered a raw tuna salad with caper berries. The fish was fresh, so I had no doubts with my first foray into Maltese sashimi, the sharp salinated kick of the caper berry punched through the slipperiness of the tuna well, however it was this very thick layer of olive oil which was eventually overpowering.
I managed to coerce one of my dining companions to let me taste some of his mussels, and these were delicious. Very well prepared. Gently steamed to keep the mini mollusk soft and tender and thankfully no sign of a beard.
Being in the harbour, I kept things fishy for the main course and ordered the sea bass fillet. It arrived skin side up, looking crisp whilst resting upon a cloud of mashed potato. I flipped it over and started on the flesh, which was well seasoned and fresh if not slightly over cooked. The potato was heavenly, salty, and soft with a satisfying silkiness.
Washing it all down we chose an Italian Pecorino, which matched well. Aromatic and a bit nutty, with an off dry quality kept our interest long enough to debate another bottle.
(+356 2122 2332. theharbourclubmalta.com)
Margo’s. 63 Republic Street, Valletta.
This wasn’t my first experience of a Margo’s pizza. It was a strategic decision to ‘go with what you know’ on this particular evening. The pizza here is extremely well thought out, from the provenance of the ingredients, temperature of the oven and the history of each style. However the way they impart this information can come across as haughty arrogance and in the most part totally bemusing. ‘A tomato is a tomato is a tomato…not.’ Eh?
The descriptions in the menu further confuse diners as to what is actually being ordered. Here is my favourite snippet:
‘Called Marinara because it was made for the fishermen returning to land from their long fishing trips. On the way home they were so hungry that they would stop and buy a pizza that was simple and not filling. God forbid they would get home and not eat what Mamma Fisherman had prepared; she would have a fit and the poor man would end up sleeping on the boat.’
What am I actually eating? Mamma, the fisherman, or the poor man? Food of this quality really doesn’t need to try this hard.
The restaurant itself has plenty of character and it plays well with the buildings original features, but it’s brighter then enflamed magnesium. With all of the white walls and white furnishings and every single bulb blaring brightly it is an overpowering sight. Turn the lights down and put some candles out.
(+356 27627467. margosmalta.com)
Salvino’s. 32, Archbishop Street, Valletta.
Is this the worst food in Malta? Quite possibly. Upon sitting at our table our server who was rather charming presented us with our menu in an A4 plastic sheet lifted directly from a ring binder. The warning signs were there from the start.
A complimentary pre-starter was given to us to “keep us going”. It was Salvino’s take on bruschetta, which was spinach, rucola and cherry tomatoes on Maltese ftira bread. The spinach tasted as though someone had chewed it, housed it in their mouth to warm it up and spat it back on the bread, the effect made what was once a crusty slice of fresh bread into the texture of a used kitchen sponge.
We chose the specials. Lobster pasta, and duck breast. The chef then appeared from the kitchen with the lobster struggling to escape her grasp – If you are going to humiliate the fated creature then you better be damn sure you know what you are doing with it. On arrival we couldn’t even see where the lobster was hiding in amongst the mountain of dry, oily spaghetti. The pieces we did find had been fried beyond recognition – a truly cruel end to the creatures life, it deserved so much better.
Attentions then turned to our other dish – the duck. It was tough and inedible, housed on top of broccoli which seemed to escape the attentions of the chef altogether . The ‘homemade’ plum sauce was sickly sweet and had nuances of the Orient which made me suspect it had come straight out of a packet.
When quizzed on how much we enjoyed our meal, we lied through our back teeth and said it was fine. How typically British. Needless to say good news travels fast but bad news travels instantly so I don’t expect them to be open much longer.
(+356 2124 6437. salvinos.eu)
Palazzo Parisio – 29, Victory Square, Naxxar.
Like a scene from ‘fair Verona where two star crosse’d lovers take their life’…you get the idea. A truly stunning Palazzo which could be the dramatic setting for any one of Shakespeare’s plays. It is still home to a Baroness and a rather good little restaurant and pop up gallery.
The menu here is confused, it seems to draw influences from everywhere, and it was vast, so vast in fact that I hadn’t managed to read it all by the time our waiter came to take the order – which in Malta can be a long time. I noted wiener schnitzel, salmon teryaki, coronation chicken, club sandwich – all very un-mediterranean.
In addition to the large menu they also do specials. One of which on this particular day was a lobster pasta, could we tempt fate and correct the wrongs of the past and order this again? I didn’t want to fully commit in case the same fate befell us, so we opted to share it with an asparagus risotto.
Thankfully our lobster was delicious, a nice chalky slab of crustacean accompanied with a light bisque which adequately coated each strand of fresh tagliatelle. The risotto was less successful and lacked any seasoning. It also hadn’t been worked on for long enough and was still too soupy, with an off al-dente texture to the rice.
People don’t just come here for the food. It is a place for ladies who lunch to while away a few hours in elegant surroundings with good company, some fresh food and a decent tipple. So in that box it gets a big tick.
(+356 21412461. palazzoparisio.com)
Zero Sei. Old Theatre Street, Il-Belt Valletta.
Apparently I missed the main event, much to the disappointment of the five guests I was dining with this evening. Normally a chap named ‘Fausto’ is your host at this pre and post theatre hang out in Valetta.
Instead we had to settle with Fausto’s doting wife as our entertainment on this particular evening. I found her thoroughly enchanting, and a gracious host. I imagine the two of them together must be a formidable team.
We ordered antipasti for the table, which consisted of various rustic platters of mozarella, mortadella and some of the finest bruschetta i’ve ever tasted – juicy blood red tomatoes with a silky fine coating of olive oil and super fresh aromatic basil. The key to these dishes is the ingredients, and I am reliably informed that the owners bring loads of freshly sourced components in a suitcase when they go back to Rome.
Main courses were less impressive. This could be in part that we ordered badly. There is no menu here, so you are reliant on what the hostess wants to sway you towards, and bearing in mind she speaks no English, and my Italian is on par with a one year old we ended up with an odd assortment.
I went for a carbonara as I was intrigued as to how an Italian would make it, and after tasting it i’d prefer to have it how they do it elsewhere. Here it was done with rigatoni, the sauce was bland, and with only a few scraps of pancetta lurking around. It came dusted with parmesan cheese which was welcomed as this was the only evidence of any kind of flavour.
Our other dish was minced chicken balls – which needless to say wasn’t what we were expecting, but wasn’t altogether bad. It was well seasoned and had bold hints of thyme garlic. I wouldn’t order it again though.
Rounding off proceedings we had a tiramisu, and again I was expecting so much more. One would expect traditional Italian trattorias such as this one would have these staples finely tuned, but it lacked almost every redeeming feature of this famed dessert, it was our unanimous verdict that it was especially lacking booze.
The finesse that is demonstrated front of house really heightens your expectations for what is going to be conjured up in the kitchen, but sadly it doesn’t quite hit the mark. If the two factors aligned this could be one the best places to get a meal in Valetta.
(+356 9931 1584.)
The Lonely Planet Guide recently placed Valletta at number five in the best cities in the world, which is a fairly worthy placement considering Washington and Milan are in the top three. 2018 will also see Valletta crowned as European capital of culture, so all eyes really will be on this charming little UNESCO city in the middle of the Mediterranean.
In terms of their restaurants, there are some doing things well, but there are some that are literally clueless, I would anticipate that the current void that exists between the best and the worst will start to reduce, and when it does it will then be Valetta and Malta’s time to shine on the worlds culinary stage.