Aziamendi 100 – a unique experience in Malta

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The view of St George’s Square and the Grandmaster’s Palace. Make sure to book a table in the balcony if available.

Malta and Michelin stars do not go together. One of the major problems in my view is not the quality of the produce which one can find on the island or the creativity of chefs but rather the fact that the small island in the Mediterranean is still too small to have a critical mass that can sustain a fine dining experience.

Therefore there was a great sense of anticipation when I read that Eneko Atxa and a British entrepreneur were opening a 100 day pop-up restaurant Aziamendi which the Spanish Basque chef had opened in December 2013 at Iniala in Thailand.

The location that has been chosen for this pop-up restaurant is exceptional. Located in a beautiful palazzo in Archbishop Street in Valletta (the Civil Service Sports Club) it overlooks the Grandmaster’s Palace and the beautiful St George’s Square.

Given we were in Malta on holiday, I was anxious to try it out particularly since Eneko Atxa, born in 1977 is Spain’s youngest ever 3 Michelin star chef in a restaurant scene which over the past 10 or so years has been at the heart of culinary innovation. The chef is considered as pioneering using cutting-edge gastronomic techniques as a feature in his kitchen.

What follows is my view of the gastronomic dinner we had which was served with a pairing of Maltese and Sicilian wines. They say comparisons are odious but with the memory of our last fine dining experience at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena, some of these views may be considered a bit harsh.

The setting is great and quite a few tables have a view of the Grand Master’s palace with its beautifully lit balconies at eye level which therefore makes for a unique experience.

All the dishes served were flawless in terms of presentation.

IMG_0080The amuse bouche was a ham and cheese airbag which was excellent and a delicious passion fruit bonbon which exploded in your mouth served to clean the palate.

IMG_0076In my view the first dish of the gastronomic menu was one of the stars of the evening. It was a recreation of a Maltese garden with edible soil made of a tomato emulsion which was then covered with beetroot and squid ink to turn it black. On top was a courgette, a tiny carrot, rocket, cauliflower, broccoli and roast tomatoes on the side. All in all this was a dish with bags of flavour, pleasing to the eye and exceptional in its depth of flavour. Not a great fan of beetroot, this was clearly the best beetroot dish I have ever tasted. The dish paired excellently with the Donna Fugata Lighea made from the Sicilian Zibibbo grapes.

IMG_0071The next course was Fois Gras ashes. This dish was beautifully presented, excellent in taste and flavour and also creative because the Fois was smoked and then turned into ashes and served on top of a terrine of foie gras and bread. Now this is one of Azurmendi’s signature dishes in his 3 Michelin star restaurant just outside Bilbao in Spain. But the dish had a problem in that it is extremely difficult to eat without messing one’s hands, which is not something you would expect in such a restaurant. In my view, the dish would have worked much better if served as a one-bite portion.

When we asked for cutlery, they told us that it was meant to be eaten by hand given there had been some accidents in the past. It was in a way a reminder of the ‘hobz biz-zejt’ (bread with tomatoes and olive oil which the Maltese love to eat but which can at times be messy). Clearly not a dish to be served on a first date given it might have created some rather embarrassing moments. The dish was served with a Maltese sweet Moscato wine from Meridiana, the Baltis 2012 which again matched perfectly.

IMG_0074The third dish was tuna two ways. One part of the tuna was served raw, marinated with a soy sauce and a ‘pillow’ with a delicious chive mayonnaise. The second part of the tuna was served seared with a red pepper sauce and garlic crisps. The raw tuna was exceptional, the cooked tuna very slightly overcooked to my liking (but I like my tuna rare). This was served with a wine from Gozo, the Marsovin Antonin 2013.

IMG_0079The fourth dish was rockfish with a traditional Basque “Salsa Verde”. It was served with white asparagus and a clam. The combination worked perfectly with a Spanish wine (but shouldn’t we have been given a Sicilian or Maltese wine with this dish?). The Salsa Verde married heavenly with the rockfish which however was slightly chewy. This was served with Gorka Izagirre G22 from Spain.

IMG_0077The fifth dish was a beautifully presented dish of local pork and grilled vegetables. The pork belly was prepared sous vide and then pan fried and topped with pork crackling. It was accompanied by a delicious roast sweet potato and a sweet potato puree. I found the pork belly to be very tasty but a bit on the dry side and not tender enough. The dish was served with a Nero d’Avola 2011from Feudo di Butera.

IMG_0072The last dish was strawberries and roses. The dish had a certain amount of theatre with the use of chemicals to create a smoke of rose perfume (it came out from a vase with fake roses) but disappointingly, the dessert fell flat in terms of taste and flavour. Fresh strawberries and a strawberry sorbet were placed on top of a rosewater marshmallow. This was served with a Moscato d’Asti from Castello del Poggio.

I asked what wines were going to be served before I opted for the Maltese/Sicilian wine pairing and was told that the last wine (the dessert wine Moscato d’Asti) was not Sicilian. This was a fair choice though Sicily is not short of sweet wines such as the Passito di Pantelleria to mention but one example. It was also surprising to note that one of the wines served during the service was a Spanish wine, albeit a very good wine, the Gorka Izagirre G22, from Azurmendi.

Verdict: If you are in Malta and looking for a unique experience, then you should visit. One tip for the remaining days that Aziamendi is open is to ask for a table on the balcony that overlooks St George’s square. The pop-up restaurant cannot be flawed, the service is very good but in my view lacks the wow factor which one would expect from Eneko Atxa whose restaurant in Spain is considered as no 26 in the World’s 50 Best restaurants.

 

Tmun in Mgarr harbour, Gozo

Mgarr, Gozo harbour
Mgarr harbour

Visiting a fishing port has a certain allure to it. Gozo’s fishing port of Mgarr is a small but picturesque harbour which is busy particularly in the summer months with the constant shuttling of visitors from the island of Malta for the period in mid-August around the feast of Santa Maria.

Mgarr harbour with its small passenger terminal is no longer just a fisherman’s harbour particularly since tourism on the island is an essential part of the island’s economy.

Nevertheless over the past years, it has become the venue of a number of interesting restaurants and bars just alongside the fishing boats many of which were out at sea.

One of the best restaurants on the island can be found here. It-Tmun rose to popularity in Xlendi, a sea-side resort on the other side of the island before it moved to Mgarr a few years ago. Tmun in Mgarr has gone from strength to strength.

Now this is a family which is renowned in the Maltese restaurant schene. Leli, the owner of the restaurant has been in this business since his return from Canada more than 20 years ago. His wife still does the early morning shopping and preparations in the kitchen while his son Paul works the magic in the kitchen making fantastic combinations, particularly with seafood though I have been told his 24 hour slow cooked pork belly is something rather special.

His other son, Patrick runs what used to be called It-Tmun Victoria but which has now changed name to Patrick’s.  That is also another place worth visiting (in the Gozo capital of Victoria) though more formal with a particular attention given to the wine list which is one of the best in Malta and Gozo.

Nevertheless, I have missed going to Tmun in Mgarr for too many times on my visits to Malta and Gozo and it seemed as if this would again be the case particularly given the first night we tried to book, it was fully-booked from the morning.

But the second time we tried, we struck it lucky. And what a great evening that turned out to be.

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Slow cooked cuttle fish
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Fish platter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We ordered a Hugel Riesling 2008 to start with and the kitchen first sent out a slow cooked cuttle-fish served on a small spoon. This was followed by another amuse-buche, a fresh tomato sauce which was full of intense flavour, given its the season when tomatoes are at their best.

This was followed by a mixed platter of fish which included raw carpaccio of tuna topped with white peaches, raw prawns, deep fried white bait, arancini of fish, octopus, a fresh fish soup known in Maltese as aljotta as well as a fish patty (pulpetta). All of these were divine.

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Grilled tuna on a pea puree
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Fish with a beurre blanc sauce

For main courses, I opted for a rare tuna steak served on a pea puree while my friends chose a dott abjad (large local monkfish) served with a beurre blanc and mussels on a bed of cabbage. The tuna was cooked to perfection and worked incredibly well with the sweet pea puree that was served at the bottom.

The fish in the beurre blanc sauce, although not necessarily a Maltese way of preparing it was also exceptional with the right amount of acidity coming from the white wine added to the sauce.

The accompanying vegetables were simply prepared but cooked to perfection.

The main courses were accompanied by a Chateau Grand Mayne 2006.

The choice of dessert all looked splendid though by this time we had ate more than we could muster. However, we were tempted by Leli to try the ice-creams, all prepared in house. All flavours looked interesting. I opted for the white chocolate and salted carmel and the zabajone with Marsala. But were perfect.

Malta and Gozo have many good restaurants although it is also dotted with many tourist traps which are to be avoided like the summer midday sun. But what you should be looking for is consistency and the love for good ingredients which make all the difference particularly when simplicity and freshness are required. In this case, It-Tmun ticks all the boxes.

Verdict: Unmissable whether you are visiting Gozo just to eat at this place or staying for a few days on the island. The crossing to Gozo is 20 minutes by ferry so you can even go there just for lunch or dinner without needing a car (you just walk five minutes from the ferry terminal). The fish platter seems to have become his speciality as a starter but there were other many interesting options to choose from both for starters, main course and dessert which is always a great sign. Apologies for the quality of the photos of the food but that is one of the pleasures of dining al fresco. Unfortunately lighting was not good.

Tmun in Mgarr can be found at Martinu Garces Street in Mgarr. Gozo. It is open every day for lunch and dinner except on Tuesday’s.

Fit for a Masterchef challenge

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Tuna tartare prepared for a previous dinner. Lighting conditions were impossible for photos of yesterday’s dinner.

The guests are about to arrive in 40 minutes, you are around 30 minutes into your food preparations but given the choice of menu you have to cook everything at the last minute. Your kitchen equipment all runs on electricity. And suddenly there is a power-cut and you don’t know when it will be restored again.

This would be a challenge fit for an episode of Masterchef or the French version Top Chef where the chefs are given countless challenges to try and cook their way out of a tricky situation.

Yesterday evening Malta suffered a nationwide power cut and the challenge to continue with my plans was probably fit for a future episode of Top Chef.

The cause of the power-cut was a fault in a  generating unit in the power station followed by an explosion at a distribution centre resulted in the whole of the island being without electricity for several hours.

The temperature is still high, above 30C, and the small gas lamp is emitting heat making the conditions in the kitchen pretty tough. But amid these adverse conditions there is hope. The first part of the meal does not require any cooking. The choice is now either to fire up the gas barbecue or else a gas hob which is picking up dust in the garage and has not been used for many years.

Given a pasta dish is involved we opt for using the gas hob and not the barbecue to continue. But the oven remains in the garage and we need to quickly create a make shift kitchen. Out comes an old table which will serve as the main base from were to cook once it becomes necessary.

A gas cylinder is now connected to the gas hob and oven but the focaccia we have prepared to serve with the fish starters cannot be placed in this oven because it is too small. We decide to bake it after the dinner instead.

In the meantime, the wine bottles are open and we start with raw fresh prawns and a tuna tartare. This is the prelude to a roller coaster ride of an evening. From now onwards it is running to and fro from the garden just outside the kitchen to the garage on a lower floor. I forget countless ingredients or pots and pans and have to run back to the kitchen every so often.

The grilled calamari and the clams cooked in garlic and wine will cook pretty much at the same time. Once everything is sorted out, the cooking starts and within minutes we are enjoying the second part of the starter.

The water is now boiling ready for me to throw in the linguine. Luckily the main course is not complicated by any stretch of imagination. Still, it required a few runs back to the kitchen to get one thing or another. First I forgot the pan I was going to cook the sauce in, then I needed a solution to drain the pasta while making sure it remained al dente.

The main course would require just 10 minutes to prepare. While the pasta cooked, I prepared the sauce for the linguine with bottarga di muggine (mullet roe). First I fried the garlic in extra virgin olive oil, drizzled some white wine and added cherry tomatoes. As soon as the pasta was cooked (more al dente then usual), I ran to the kitchen with the large pot to drain the water and then back to the makeshift garage kitchen where after adding the bottarga to the sauce, we added in the pasta, stirred a bit before finishing off with some rocket and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Power cuts and water cuts are a very sore point in Malta and subject to great political controversies and discussions both because of their recurrence since the 1980s despite millions in investments to sort out the problem.  Since I no longer live here, it seems like it happens less often though in the news it was reported that the last nationwide power cut occurred in January.

When it happens, however, it allows for countless discussions and arguments but also points of reflection worth pondering about.

There are the lessons one takes:

  1. Be prepared.
  2. In whatever situation you find yourself in, you need to always have a plan B. Its not about being paranoid but about ensuring resilience.
  3. Turn adversity into positivity.
  4. Enjoy the moment.

 

Recipe 5: Raw marinated prawns with orange zest

IMG_5184The cicadas are screaming like there is no tomorrow, it is impossible to walk in the sun as the temperature soars above 30C. To joke, some people bluff that if it gets any hotter, they might fry an egg on their car bonnet. This is life in the Mediterranean on a hot summer’s day.

To refresh oneself in these conditions, water is essential, either to drink and rehydrate or else to jump into and cool down. Then comes the evening and the cicadas make way to long lazy evenings, preferably outdoors. There is a smell of burning charcoal wherever you walk. People are outdoors because the houses inside still retain the heat that has accumulated during the day.

As the sun starts to set, a nice breeze suddenly arrives. This is the time to enjoy the fruits of ones work.

In this case, the recipe below is the essence of simplicity. What you need is a good relationship with your fishmonger. Tell him or her what you have in mind, make sure what you are buying is extremely fresh and then let the ingredients do the showing off. Nothing tastes of freshness as these raw marinated prawns.

Serves four as part of an antipasto. With this I served some grilled calamari and a tartare of tuna (see recipes in subsequent posts).

Ingredients

  • 12 fresh prawns
  • One lemon
  • Zest of one orange.
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Maldon sea salt (You can use fleur de sel)

Method

1. Clean the prawns. Remove the head, peel the skin one by one and rinse in cold water. Then remove the vein. What I do is cut a very small incision in the middle of the prawn and then remove with the blunt edge of the knife. Clean them again in cold water.

2. Place the peeled raw prawns in a plate or bowl. Add the juice of one lemon and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (the best you can find). and then mix the prawns with the mixture to ensure that the prawns are all covered with the mixture. Then add the zest of one small orange of top for added acidity and freshness and sprinkle some salt on top.

3. Keep in the refrigerator until ready to serve (within two hours).

4. Enjoy.

Drinking recommendation: Raw prawns have a certain sweetness which cuts through the acidity of the lemon juice and orange zest. This dish screams Southern Mediterranean so I would stick with an acidic wine from South Italy. A Falanghina or Fiano d’Avellino from Campania would work extremely well as would a fresh Insolia from Sicily. I would also recommend it with a Vermentino from Sardegna, Tuscany or Liguria

 

Book review: Shadows in the vineyard – the true story of the plot to poison the world’s greatest wine

Vineyards in Burgundy

What kind of man the cellarer of the Monastery should be

1) As cellarer of the monastery should be chosen from the community, one who is sound in judgement, mature in character, sober, not a great eater, not self-important, not turbulent, not harshly spoken, not an off-putter, not wasteful.

2) but a God-fearing man, who will be a father to the whole community

3) He is to have charge of all affairs

10) He must regard the chattels of the monastery and its whole property as if they were sacred vessels of the altar

(Chapter 31 of the Benedictine Rules, as posted in English inside the Burgundy’s Abbey Notre Dame de Citeaux)

So starts the book, Shadows in the Vineyard, the true story of the plot to poison the world’s greatest wine. The author Maximillian Potter admits at the end of the book that when he came to write this story for a magazine and later turned it into a book, he knew very little about wine. This is all the more amazing because the book reads very well, has incredible details and history of the wines of Burgundy. On top of it all, he recounts a true story which happened in 2010 and which threatened to ruin the wines of the Domaine de la Romanee Conti.

Now for any serious wine lovers, the wines from this Domaine are the holy grail of wines. On just about any list of the world’s top 25 rated wines you will normally find seven wines from this wine house: the Richebourg, Echezeaux, Grands Echezeaux, La Tache, Romanee-St Vivant, Montrachet and Romanee-Conti.

Burgundy wines are well known for their finesse, particularly if they are well made. But finding these well-made wines is not as easy as it seems.Made from Chardonnay (white) and Pinot Noir (red), no other region is as complicated even for wine experts as Burgundy. The reason is that this north, it is very difficult to make wines and therefore terroir plays a very important if not crucial role in the wine production. With so many appellations based on villages (87 in total) and vineyards shared by some 3,5000 winegrowers it is no wonder that Burgundy wines can be confusing.

Getting your way through Burgundy wines is like getting a very thorough geography lesson. You need to know the villages, where the vineyard is, in which part of the hill it is and whether it faces the sun or not.

You need to know why a wine from a village may cost double or triple the price of another which is produced just across the road but from another village.

There is therefore a certain allure to Burgundies, and when you discover well made Burgundies even from small producers, you normally return to buy these wines time and time again first because a well made Burgundy wine is fantastic.

But the wines from DRC as the Domaine is often known are among the world’s most sought after wines and also unfortunately unaffordable to many.

Few people knew about the story to poison these wines. So when I spotted this book, I was immediately curious. I actually thought it was a work of fiction and had to check the story out before I actually bought the book,

The author writes beautifully about the wines and the Burgundy region, the plot reads like a thriller and makes you really curious to find out what finally happened.

I will not spoil the story of the book but if you are interested in wine, want to discover a bit more about Burgundy and read a different sort of book related to wine, then I highly recommend it.

 

 

What I enjoyed reading this week (6)

Here is a list of interesting articles I have come across this week. Enjoy your Sunday with these nice reads.

You will find a great article about wine fraud and counterfeiting from wine searcher here which is food for thought especially for the risk it involves of buying expensive wines. For those in the know, drinking wines from Fleurie or Morgon may no longer be considered as inferior pleasures.

Have you ever wondered in awe about wine sommeliers and their incredible depth of knowledge about wines. Here you will find what it takes to become a master sommelier.

Chablis is a fantastic wine region and wine that is excellent with seafood. Here you will find a great lesson about Chablis.

Fast food has a very bad reputation for health. However, eating in restaurants might not be any better according to a study.

If you are heading to Amsterdam any time soon here is a list of 10 pop-up restaurants or food hotspots you can find in this Dutch city.