Restaurant review

The Island of Malta – A culinary roller coaster ride.

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.

Standard
London restaurant, Restaurant review

POPPIES Spitalfields – A Northerners quest for great fish and chips.

You will be hard pushed to find a Northener that doesn’t like fish and chips and i’m no exception. Fish and Chips are a British institution, and as a Nation we consume over 382 million portions annually.

Living in London for the last decade my ‘friday fish and chip’ intake has taken a battering  due to the distinct lack of quality fish and chips on offer, or anything else even resembling what’s occurring in deep fat fryers North of Watford.

This is an issue that I am always very vocal about, and every time I whinge about it someone always offers me a solution to cure this inert desire for fried delights. So true to form I will more often than not give peoples recommendations a go, and am nearly always disappointed. The truth is if you haven’t had traditional fish and chips from the North West coast then you don’t have a point of reference. For me the North – South divide has never been so apparent as when discussing fish and chips.

In order to provide you with said point of reference you should be aware that a good fish consists of a steamed milky white fillet encased in a delicate light and crisp batter, which should be integral to the fish and not a layer that easily peels away like soggy wallpaper – fried food of this quality is fairly universal to ‘chippies’ in Lancashire.

This Friday afternoon I found myself in a familiar predicament so after a brief Google found myself en route to Poppies in Spitalfields. It bares all sorts of bold claims on it’s website and has been decorated with an extensive amount of awards so thought it was worth a shot. On arrival we were greeted with a queue of hungry patrons snaking out of the door. Surely a good sign?

Our time spent queueing at Poppies certainly wasn’t in vain as it allowed us to take in the rather bizarre surroundings. The dining room reminded me of the diner in Hill Valley when Marty McFly takes a trip Back to the Future, whilst the staff wear an outfit that suggests that they ought to be wearing roller-skates while carrying pots of over brewed filter coffee.

After waiting in line for around ten minutes we were taken to our table, which unfortunately  for us was next to a table of fifteen very enthusiastic Chinese tourists, each projecting a hysterical cackle that had a similar effect on us as kryptonite has on Superman. Luckily the menu didn’t require much concentration so our order was placed swiftly. “Haddock and chips times two and give me two minutes with the wine list.”

Sancerre is a great choice for fish and chips, it’s crisp herbaceous character cuts nicely through the oiliness – perhaps a long shot to hope that a chippy in the East End would have it. They didn’t, so after perusing the five wines they did have on offer I settled on a tempranillo rose (£15.90). The wine list wasn’t actually as uninspiring as it sounds and I was pleased that the only rose they did have on offer wasn’t a white zinfandel (I wouldn’t even cook with it) but a nice dry and fruity Spaniard.

My enthusiasm for the wine list was short lived as what was ordered was not what arrived. After studying the bottle I decided it was of comparable quality to what I ordered so we stuck with it. It was actually a decent bottle and worth noting that it was chilled to perfection. If a ‘caf’ down the market can get it right then why michelin standard restaurants in town are still serving whites and fizz that feel as though they have been basking in Dubai is unfathomable.

We waited patiently for around twenty minutes for the main event to arrive. Time again not altogether wasted as it gave us an opportunity to learn about owner and founder Pop Newlands glittering fish frying career and how he came to start Poppies. One would assume that it has been here since the forties, hence it’s decor and popularity with the Chinese tourists, but it is a staggering four years old, feeling slightly duped I was able to console myself with the knowledge that our food had just arrived.

The fish and chips were good – batter was light and crisp, however there were small traces of undercooked batter lurking beneath. The fish whilst nicely poached in it’s batter still had the skin on, which wasn’t a particularly welcome addition to my plate. Chips were nice chunky slaps of carb heaven which once drowned in a mountain of salt certainly did the job.

If sitting in a dining room with laminate table tops listening to Del Shannon Runaway doesn’t sound top of the pops then this place isn’t for you, and as such my expectation wasn’t great. Some of it’s charm however was not altogether lost on me, and the fish and chips? It’s probably the best i’ve had in London. I’ll save my review of the worst for another day…

Table for 2. £42.65 with wine, excluding service. 6-8 Hanbury Street, E1 (020 7247 0892, poppiesfishandchips.co.uk) Open daily from 11am – 11pm. Sundays until 10.30pm.

Standard
London restaurant, Restaurant review

POND Dalston – Anyone else got that sinking feeling!?

In the latest wave of new openings in the culinary revolution currently occurring in and around Dalston, Pond has now washed up on our doorstep. The remit of this new contender is serving what is apparently the ‘toast of the US dining scene’.

It is in actual fact Hawaiian cuisine which i’m sure wouldn’t be an altogether unsuccessful concept if it were executed elsewhere and by a different chef – unless you’ve missed the subtext, the food was poor.

Located in the dodgy end of Gillett Square – on approach you may feel slightly out of place unless drinking neat rum or Guinness from the bottle, so I would suggest you do both as it will soften the blow of paying the bill at this place.

Aesthetically Pond Dalston ticks all the right boxes, it’s on trend with it’s industrial exposed brickwork, warehouse location and funky Hawaiian shirts adorning the pretty staff. Being thoroughly enamored with the vibe I felt I needed to relieve the excitement with a trip to the little boys room. It was upon viewing the toilet bowl that my excitement faded and I decided against draining the weasel – the old chap has seen some sites in it’s time but this porcelain was straight out of a halls of residence.

With a full bladder I felt it best to heighten my discomfort so obviously turned to the cocktail menu, an experience that was altogether positive, if not a little sweet for my pallet. I kicked things off with a ‘Tinglet’ which is based on a homemade cordial of Ting. The world is a better place with Ting ‘innit, so this beverage received rapturous applause.

pond bar

Moving through to the restaurant we were given our menus which were secreted in a National Geographic magazine – nice touch, very Dalston. I took to the helm with ordering and for a table of four, ordered a couple of dishes from each section of the menu.

From the small plates section we opted for the Kalua Pork (£9.80) and the Fillet Poke (£10.20). Both of which were thoroughly unpleasant. The pork reminded me of fowl that had been frozen, thawed out and microwaved and was served with a green sauce that had the texture of baby food but sadly not the taste…it had no taste. The texture of the Fillet Poke was halfway between fat and gristle – a poke in the eye would have been preferable.

I also ordered us a selection of sushi rolls, which were rather good, and to their credit they served kizami wasabi which is a version of fresh wasabi which provides great depth of flavour and offers a good accompaniment to the rolls. Sashimi here is best avoided. It wasn’t the most unpleasant flavour we had that evening but it was tasteless and not the best quality.

Other lowlights included the Smokin Cow (£21.00) beef ribs which were dryer than the Sahara and the Sambal Black Cod (£23.50) which hadn’t been de-boned and nearly sent me to an early grave.

Accompanying our meal I had a few glasses of crisp South African Chenin Blanc which was a good pairing, but the rest of the list really ought to be reviewed. It lacked any kind of thought and was limited and overpriced. They have no bottom range in the list, so those on a budget will struggle to find a wine.

The service here at Pond really ought to get a mention, as it was fluid and consistent and punctuated with some good banter – I was slightly perturbed when I initially saw the bar staff perusing the latest edition of National Geographic, however hindsight demonstrates that this was a willingness to swot up on the menu, rather than a keen interest in the Amazonian Bull Frog.

Named Pond as a reference to hopping over the Atlantic to the UK, I think it an appropriate title, as i’m quite sure this restaurant will go the way of the Titanic on it’s fated trip over the pond and sink without a trace.

Table for 4. £178 with wine and service. Unit G2, Stamford Works, 3 Gillett Street, N16 (020 3772 6727 pond-dalston.com). Open daily 5pm-11pm.

Standard