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.

 

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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.

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.

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.

 

 

Brussels – C’chicounou a little Syrian-Lebanese gem

photoC’chicounou just off Place Flagey is a gem of a place serving top quality Syrian-Lebanese food. Chef Georges Baghdi Sar is only 24 years old but definitely has a great future ahead of himself. Given he has been on a traineeship at the Brussels institution: Comme Chez Soi, you expect great things.

And you will not be disappointed. The food served is of exceptional quality, the prices are incredibly reasonable, it is no wonder the place was packed the two times we visited in recent months. All dishes are given a special touch with a scattering of pomegranate seeds which adds freshness and colour.

The interior decor is a bit quirky and might have to be avoided on a hot summer’s day given it is completely wooden though it does give the restaurant a warm feeling.

This is not your normal tapas place. The selection on the menu is great and there are also two menus which allow you to taste various dishes.

There are traditional Middle Eastern staples like Hoummos, a chickpea dip with sesame seeds, garlic, cumin and lemon, the Moutabale, a caviar of aubergine with sesame seeds, garlic cumin and lemon as well as the Tabouleh (a parsley salad) and Fatouche a salad of grilled bread, tomatoes, radish, parsley and olive oil.

Hot starters include excellent Falafel, different home made beef sausages, a superb broad bean salad with a sesame cream, lemon juice, tomatoes, fresh mint, cumin and olive oil.

The main dishes are mainly grilled meats which are simply grilled but seasoned to perfection and incredibly tasty.

This is a perfect place to go with friends but there is also a very generous menu at 35 euros for two people which includes a choice of three cold starters, two hot starters, a choice from the grill as well as a salad. It is also an ideal place for vegetarians, the choice of meat free dishes and salads is very large.

The only criticism for a wine lover is the wine-list which needs some work. The wines are from the same wine house in Languedoc, Les Vignobles Montagnac. The quality price ratio is excellent but one would expect a better choice though this is probably what keeps the prices reasonable.

Open daily except Saturday lunch time and Sundays, I would recommend you book well in advance given how busy it was on the two evenings we went.

Address: 29 rue de la Levure, Ixelles

Verdict: Book now and go as soon as you can. I guarantee you will return back time and time again. You might also be tempted to drop by and get a takeaway. Follow this chef, I am sure we will hear more about him in the near future. He has a passion for food and prepares everything himself including all the beef preparations and mortadella.

 

Osteria Francescana – the pursuit of perfection

Italian chef Massimo Bottura is a genius who has brought Italian cuisine to a completely different level. If France is renowned for its obsession with classics and Spain is the culinary hub of innovation, Italy is steeped in tradition. It is a country which takes its critics seriously. I remember a football coach once saying that the country had 60 million football coaches. A chef, I am not sure if it was Bottura, once said that there are as many food critics.

These food critics will obsess about whether any fish dish should be served with cheese (this is a taboo for many in Italy) and I can understand why. Italians shudder to think of mixing cheese with fish for example though there are some very minor exceptions. You can normally spot an authentic Italian pizzeria anywhere in the world by looking for their Pizza Marinara. If it has mozzarella, the chances are it is not run by Italians.

Bottura, with his Osteria Francescana, however, plays in a different league. Having gone in search of inspiration in France and Spain among others, he shows an incredible respect for ingredients. Who else would have thought of coming up with a dish called the five ages of parmesan which just showcases one ingredient?

Or who could invent a reconstructed lasagna with a sumptuous ragu and a lasagna crisp?

The Modenese chef has reinvented classics. His dishes all tell a story and you sometimes wonder how he gets his inspiration. When you walk into his restaurant you realise that he is obsessed with modern art and it is obviously here that he gets most of his inspiration for his dishes.

While modern, Bottura is also respecting tradition. He is always in search of the past but tries to reinterpret dishes and give them a modern twist without trying to be clever or over doing it.

The meal at Osteria Francescana was one to remember. It was a pity that Bottura was not there but in Istanbul because I am sure the experience would have been even better.

The meal started off with a macaroon of tomato and mozzarella. The flavour of the tomato burst in your mouth. The lemon granita and limoncello foam cleansed the palate for the start of the sensations menu.

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The first dish was exceptional. It was eel served with a cream of polenta and apple gelee. The eel was perfectly cooked, worked incredibly well with the apple and the polenta was out of this world.

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What followed was a joy for the eye but also for the palate. It was a pate served with a jelly of Lambrusco, the regional wine, as well as a puree of different peppers, green, red and yellow. Visually the plate was stunning.

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Next came the Caesar Salad or rather Bottura’s interpretation of this classic salad. You need to be incredibly confident to serve such a dish in such a restaurant. But he used the lettuce as a condiment to 23 different ingredients all stuffed within the leaves from egg to parmesan crisps, to mint and anchovies, to bacon and mustard, lemon and only the chefs know what else. This was outstanding.

This was followed by what Bottura’s calls a day out in the Modenese countryside, a dish which was not only a joy to look at but also excellent (see it here). The snails were hiding under the leaves and it was topped with a beetroot sauce.

The lasagna stole the show for its originality, with the ragu cooked sous vide, but not for long as we were then served with what was probably the star of the afternoon, the five ages of Parmeggiano Reggiano dish which I have written about here.

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This was then followed by frog legs coated in hazelnuts and a pasta which gave the illusion of a pond. After this came a superb pasta dish, Bottura’s notorious “The dream of a Frenchman to cook pasta like an Italian.” Three ravioli stuffed with fois gras which burst with flavour making you wish there were more.

What followed was probably the best piece of meat which I have ever tasted. Pork cooked sous vide and then finished in a pan to crisp the top. It was served with a 45-year-old balsamic vinegar from Bottura’s private cellar together with asparagus and horse radish. What can I say. This was out of this world.

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Next came a risotto cooked with olive oil and covering pigs cheeks, followed by an original dessert of strawberry sorbet, a pea cream, pea meringue served with fresh milk from Modena’s countryside.

Coffee was served with a medley of chocolates and sweets which as expected could not be faulted.

Verdict: Book a flight to Bologna which is only 30 minutes away from Modena and head there now before it becomes much harder to book. It is no wonder this restaurant is ranked number 3 in the world. Expect the unexpected. From Bottura you cannot expect anything less. Osteria Francescana will make you rethink what’s so special with Italian cuisine.