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.

Knees to Chin: Asian, fresh and healthy

20140805-001908-1148186.jpgThe area around Place Chatelain in Brussels is one of my favourite places to just walk around, just sit down for a drink or eat. It has a superb ‘village feel’ with many boutique stores which are a breath of fresh air in cities that are starting to look the same with the common branded high-street stores.

It is one of the first areas of Brussels I discovered when I moved to this city nine years ago. And it is constantly evolving though it hasn’t lost any of its charm. Old places which have stood the test of time are complemented by new establishments which open from time to time and which hope to also become regular fixtures of the area.

Recently we stopped for a quick bite at Knees to Chin, a newish place on Rue Livorne, in between Avenue Louise and Place Chatelain.

The concept is very simple but effective. If you are looking for a quick and healthy lunch this is the perfect place. They make rice paper rolls which you find in Asia. Using fresh ingredients these rice paper rolls are extremely good particularly on these warm summer days.

At Knees to Chin they make six different rice paper rolls with a great choice of fish, meat and vegetarian rolls. You can also opt for the lunch menu with a choice of either two or three rice paper rolls and a bowl of rice finished with a great peanut sauce and sesame seeds or a salad.

The place is very small but has a very welcoming interior design, I liked the display behind the counter with white and green ceramic tiles and the use of upside down colourful jars as hanging lights.

The rice paper rolls I tried were the prawns with mango and fresh mint topped with an avocado sauce, the chicken with pears and rocket served with a peanut sauce and the duck with green apple and caramelised onions served with a sesame sauce were all fresh and very tasty. The bowl of sticky rice was excellent.

The great thing about Brussels is that more and more great spots with interesting concepts are opening. These places thrive because of good service, excellent food and word of mouth. If you are in the area you should give it a try.

Verdict: the concept is good and unique for Brussels. The produce is fresh. For a quick and healthy lunch don’t hesitate to go if you are in the area.

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You can find Knees to Chin in rue de Livourne 125, Brussels.  This small restaurant is closed on Sundays. Check out their website for opening hours since these will change after 31st August.

 

O Liban – a great Lebanese restaurant in Bascule

There was a sense of disappointment in our family when Giovanni on Chaussee de Vleurgat closed a few years ago. When we arrived in Brussels nearly nine years ago, it was not only close to home but it also served one of the best Italian espressos or cappuccinos you could find in Brussels. Moreover, the cannoli (which we are so accustomed too in Malta) were to die for.

Now either my palate has become accustomed to ‘worse’ coffee or else the Belgian coffee scene has clearly made remarkable improvements. I tend to believe that it is more the latter than the former.

Italian food is clearly comfort food but Lebanese food can be exceptional particularly when using fresh ingredients. I can today say that his replacement has proved himself on many occasions over the past years.

O Liban is a great place to stop for a quick lunch or dinner. It is also perfect to grab a take-away or to try one of their delicious typical Lebanese ‘sandwiches’ or pittas. They are all excellent using fresh ingredients, excellent sauces like the garlic sauce or hummus. They are so good that you might develop a craving for them. Whenever I am in the area of Bascule at lunch time, I nearly always end up going to grab a sandwich from there. My favourites are the lamb kefta, chicken and the falafel.

Hummus (better known as a chickpea dip) can easily be made at home or bought from a supermarket or speciality shop. Nevertheless, the test for a Lebanese restaurant is to make hummus taste special. O Liban passes this test with flying colours.

This is also an excellent place if you are vegetarian. Among the lunch or dinner options, you can put together a plate of your choice with some of the dishes that are ready prepared and which you can either eat at the restaurant or else take home. The meat option includes a choice of meat as well as six vegetable dishes or salads while the vegetarian option (also excellent for non vegetarians) gives you an option for eight different choices. You can of course include the excellent hummus as well as the Moutabal which is an incredibly tasty aubergine dip.

O Liban is great for a quick lunch or dinner. It is always busy which is a guarantee for fresh ingredients and salads. Service is extremely good though at times when it gets extremely busy might be a bit slow at the start.

If you are craving Mediterranean food and looking for something quick, comforting and good, O Liban on Chaussee de Vleurgat is a great choice.

If you have never tried Lebanese wine, this is also your chance to try it. We have always tried the ground floor snack and ‘traiteur’ though there is a restaurant on the first floor which also serves interesting set menus.

Verdict: If you develop a craving for their ‘sandwiches’ using the typical Lebanese flat bread do not blame me. They are that good. Among their vegetable choices, you need to try the hummus, moutabal and the ‘moussaka’. This Lebanese version is a stew of aubergine, chickpeas and tomatoes and is incredibly tasty. Go there for a quick takeaway or else for a casual lunch or dinner. You will not be disappointed.

O Liban is open everyday (closed in the evenings on Sunday and Monday). He can be found at Chaussée de Vleurgat 324, close to La Bascule.

Volpaia – a medieval Tuscan village you have to visit

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Volpaia at sunset

It is possible that you can go to Tuscany many times and completely miss Volpaia. This is a tiny village in the middle of the Chianti region which is not mentioned on tourist guides and only accessible by car unless you feel like walking for kilometres up a never ending hill. This is a place which is completely off the beaten track though a few years ago I got worried when one of its restaurants was reviewed in a travel magazine as one of the best places to dine al fresco in Tuscany.

There is no such thing as tourist shops like many ‘touristic villages’  in such popular tourist areas. The allure comes from a picturesque medieval village, great views, a great bar, two restaurants and a winery which goes by the name of Castello di Volpaia.

This is a village that you can visit time and time again without getting bored. There is not much to do other than walk in the countryside or amid the narrow streets, drink a coffee or a glass of wine at the village’s only bar. All you need is good company or a nice book to soak up the splendid views.

There is also a winery which is part and parcel of the village and which has been making wine since the 1100s.

The impact as you head up to Volpaia is immediate. The view of this fortified town is breathtaking. But what is stunning about Volpaia is the unique atmosphere of this medieval village.

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The Bar-Ucci

Once you arrive to the square you will see the restaurant La Bottega on one side and the wine bar Bar-Ucci on the other side. At the opposite end you will also see the entrance to the winery Castello di Volpaia which makes some exceptional wines including Chianti Classico as well as a range of Super Tuscans and the Tuscan sweet wine Vin Santo.

The Bar-Ucci which takes its name from the owner of the bar is a gem. Firstly, the coffees in the morning are exceptional. There is a great selection of wines by the glass from the Chianti region and you can also get platters of home-cured meat as well as pecorino which is served with honey and a selection of mustards.

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The stunning terrace at La Bottega

The restaurant La Bottega has probably one of the best terraces in Tuscany. It has a view of the famous Tuscan rolling hills (see below). But on top of that this is home cooking at its best. You get simple but great ingredients and turn them into a perfect meal. We have eaten here many times and the service and quality of the food has always been top notch. A few recommendations include the Pici al Cinghiale (a Tuscan type of pasta with a wild boar sauce), the pappardelle al tartufo or porcini mushrooms, the ribollita, rabbit served with a truffle sauce, the obvious bistecca alla fiorentina (t-bone steak) or a wild boar stew with olives. Their chocolate tart is unbelievably good. It is the first and only time that I can remember that all of us at table (six) ordered dessert twice it was so good.

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The Castello di Volpaia winery

We did not try the other restaurant in Volpaia but visited the winery and tried a range of their wines. Castello di Volpaia, with vineyards surrounding this hilltop village, makes Chianti Classico, the Chianti Classico Riserva and a white wine which is a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc). They also make single vineyard wines which are all exceptional. My favourite is Il Puro Casanova, a 100% San Giovese. The property also produce wines from the upcoming region of Tuscany, the Maremma.

Their Vin Santo is also extremely good. The last time I tasted their Vin Santo was last December. it was a 15 year old wine with great complexity and still incredible freshness. Volpaia is only a few kilometres away from Radda in Chianti. If you are in the area, I recommend you visit and then drop me a line about your experience.

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The view from Volpaia

 

The real Neapolitan pizza

20140716-232117-84077729.jpgPizza is taken very seriously in Campania and especially in Naples and its surrounding areas. The reasons are rather obvious. The area is known for its San Marzano tomatoes which are renowned for their exceptional quality particularly for making tomato sauce and for the Mozzarella di Bufala made from milk from water buffalo raised in the marshlands of Campania.

No one really knows where pizza originated from  but the ‘Napolitani’ claim to be those that have invented the pizza we are so accustomed to eating nowadays in many pizzerias worldwide.

20140716-232118-84078259.jpgMaarten Van Steen of Villa Bardon in Gent which serves Mediterranean cuisine has just come back from a two week course organised by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napolitana to learn the secrets to making a good pizza. This afternoon we tasted the results of this two week course and the result was extremely successful.

Here he shares the secrets of what he has learned in the two weeks he stayed in the world’s pizza capital.

It might sound obvious but there are a few secrets to making good pizza. The first is the dough. This is made with water, flour (in Italy the use the 00 type) salt and yeast. You need to let it rest for around two hours, following which you shape it into balls which are left to ferment even overnight in a cool environment. This adds to the complexity of flavour.

The other secret is the ingredients on top of the pizza. In Campania they use crushed San Marzano tomatoes to make tomato sauce as the base for the pizza. The mozzarella is the other key ingredient. Here, unfortunately, it is not easy to replicate given that it is extremely difficult if not impossible to find a good mozzarella that has been produced on that same day. In the South of Italy, mozzarella is taken very seriously and many will make sure that they use one which had been just prepared on the day. Maarten says the best mozzarella he has ever tasted came from a visit to the farm where it had just been produced. I can vouch for such mozzarella from our visit to Campania a few years ago.

The real pizza Napolitana uses just tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil. When the ingredients are good, simplicity is key.

Maarten says another key element of making good pizza is to have the right oven. A stone oven is obviously essential but he was also in pizzerias which made use of gas ovens (albeit with a flame). He says the results are not the same but come close.

You obviously need to open the dough well. Here the secret is not to throw the dough into the air. This is a gimmick and not the way the Associazione teaches upcoming pizzaiolos.

He had his fair share of pizzas but he says one of the things which surprised him most was a ‘fried’ pizza calzone stuffed with ricotta and pancetta among others which was sensational. He tried this at Pizzeria Di Matteo, which is a very famous pizzeria in one of the narrow streets of Naples.

Many associate the Pizza Marinara with seafood. However, in Campania, the Pizza Marinara is the simplest pizza you can have. It is just a pizza with tomatoes and garlic and has no mozzarella.

For the time being, Maarten will perfect the art of making pizza on his days off from the restaurant. As he says, the two week course in Naples adds to his cooking experiences. Who knows, we might be able to try his pizzas in Gent sometime in future.

 

 

Winehouse Osteria – a taste of Italy in the heart of Brussels

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The cosy Winehouse Osteria close to Place St Gery in central Brussels

It is with a certain amount of trepidation that I recommend and then test a place with friends particularly if it is relatively new and has very little reviews. But like the best secrets in life, word of mouth is normally a sure bet even if there is always that expectation that something might go wrong.

I came across Winehouse Osteria thanks to recommendations from some friends after I wrote about Caffe al Dente in Uccle. This place just off the Place St Gery area is quite a find. Part wine shop, part coffee shop, part Osteria, the restaurant is extremely small and cosy but worth a visit.

If you are nostalgic about Italy or craving for an Italian experience, then this will not disappoint you. Forget for a while that you are in central Brussels and this osteria/enoteca could easily be in a small beautiful village somewhere in Italy.

The wine list is interesting and reasonably priced. You will find many bottles below 20 Euros which is not common in Brussels with a great selection of wines in the 20 Euros to 35 Euros range (a common price for entry level wines in most restaurants in Brussels). If you decide to just take home some wines, then the price is also listed on the wine list and considerably cheaper. Italy is well covered. Just to give you an example, I even found a wine from Liguria which is not a common sight on wine lists outside this region.

They had a number of wines from the wine list missing when we went, but their recommendations as a replacement were spot-on.

Winehouse Osteria also has a great selection of wines by the glass. The prosecco to start with was creamy and excellent. They also serve Aperol Spritz for those nostalgic about the ‘aperitivo’ in Italy.

The beauty about this place is that you can visit at any time between 7.45am and late in the evening. You can just go for a coffee in the morning, lunch or dinner in the evening or even a glass of wine at any time.

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The aubergine parmigiana and the zucchini parmigiana. Both perfectly done.

This is not your normal Italian restaurant. You will not find pizza or pasta dishes (except for their lasagna). But the food menu is interesting. Apart from cheese and salumi platters there is a small range of interesting dishes. When we went we tried a carpaccio of beef (excellent), a cheese and salumi platter (very good) and grilled peppers. The parmigiana of aubergine was exceptional as was the one made with zucchini. I had the involtini of chicken with guanciale and scamorza seres with a grilled scamorza and tomato sauce and peas. The polenta dish with a cheese, confit onion and lemon was also an excellent combination of flavours.

It was obvious when we were there that the people running Winehouse Osteria are passionate about what they are doing even if they seem to be working miracles form their tiny kitchen which serves this small osteria.

If there was point to criticise it was their desserts. The tiramisu was good but not exceptional and the ice-cream seemed like it was a supermarket ice-cream.

Price for central Brussels is also very reasonable. We paid around 35 Euros per person for an aperitivo, starter, main course and dessert. This is a place to visit if you like wine and want something different in central Brussels.

Verdict: Amid many tourist traps in central Brussels this is worthy of a visit, even for those like us who rarely venture to this side of town to dine. The target audience is clearly locals given most tourists may be tempted to try something more traditionally Belgian in the centre. Nevertheless, if you are craving for comfort food, want to share a glass of wine with friends over a nice cheese or salumi platter or fancy some comfort food, I am sure you will not be disappointed.

Winehouse Osteria: Rue de la Grand Ile, 42, Brussels. Open everyday from 7.45am to 11pm.