In memory of language
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I don’t suppose this will come as a surprise to any reader of this column but I have never studied languages. I am old enough to have had the misfortune to be able to opt out of a subject when still in school. What sounds like a good idea at age 14 creeps back to haunt when trying to figure out what an infinitive is. The only consolation is that what one doesn’t know, one can’t wilfully split.
And yet I lament the loss of what to us represented a rudimentary grasp of language, the minimum arsenal of vocabulary, grammar and orthography that allowed us to communicate coherently. Text messages, Facebook and other instant forms of transmitting what equates to emergency messages have effectively done away with the need to respect language.
I suppose this goes back to early forms of messaging. I am pretty sure there was no smoke signal for the semicolon. And a few dots and dashes sufficed to send an SOS message in Morse code.
Back then, however, few of these abbreviations and contractions actually made it to mainstream use. Today I hear children actually pronounce LOL and OMG as abbreviations. WITWCT? (What is this world coming to?)
Maltese suffers a worse fate. For a long time it was perfectly possible to speak our language without knowing how to spell it. Now, however, you can’t sell your car on maltapark.com without writing out a description so ‘adu sewa ħafna’ (sic) will have to do, with phonetics giving a resounding slap to orthography.
I hate to come across as a pedant. After all, I have absolutely no right to be one and am guilty of enough linguistic sin to throw the first stone and a heap of others after that. I’m simply adding a voice to the pleas for respecting the basics of what is an almost universal communication tool.
U Bistrot in Balluta joins the dark side right at the outset, using the letter ‘U’ to mean ‘You’. I’m not sure how much money they’ve saved on signage by skimping on a couple of letters.
A board on the inside takes this to a higher level by having an entire manifesto printed on it, with almost every sentence starting with ‘U’. So five years ago.
The location is just lovely though. It happens to be at the very bottom of the U that forms Balluta Bay so I forced myself to consider this their inspiration when naming the place. Half a dozen tables, neatly laid and sporting impeccable linen, are lined up on the pavement outside while another half dozen or so occupy the narrow internal space.
Parking is easy, too, with the Le Meridien Hotel car park just 30 seconds up the road. Location is definitely in U Bistrot’s favour. The deep blue dusk and the warm lights of the buildings across the bay paint an irresistibly pretty picture, so much that I would have preferred sitting at an outside table and braving the exhaust of the traffic jam than sitting inside where the air is cooler and cleaner.
I hadn’t reserved a table though, so sitting outside wasn’t going to be an option, I was politely informed. We were seated inside beneath what I christened the U-board, supplied with menus, and given time to settle in.
The menus are true to the bistro style, quite simple and state that they change every couple of weeks. In addition, boards outside specify daily specials.
Though the dishes themselves are simple, the number of them is quite extensive so the menu goes on and on for a number of pages, with salads, pasta dishes, meat dishes and so on.
There is even a page dedicated to those who refuse to order a dish if it contains 451 calories. Every dish on this page, as guaranteed by an indisputable authority who I shall not name, never exceeds450 calories.
To be fair to these lightweight dishes, they didn’t sound half as bad as I expected. While I will only lose weight when this is imposed by six feet of soil above my head, I am aware that sensible eating should be the order rather than the exception. Our health depends on this as do our aesthetics. I will die young, round, and well-fed but I’m not advocating this recklessness so well done to U Bistrot for offering this page of sensible gastronomy.
A young man who appeared to be running the show quite capably on the evening of our visit turned up to let us know that tuna steak was so fresh it hadn’t made it to the menu and that a couple of items on the menu weren’t available any more.
The beauty of bistro-style service is that items run out because they’re bought fresh and there is absolutely no shame in saying so to your clients.
If I ever run a bistro, I thought, I will have an item on the menu that I will not even bother buying just to claim I’ve run out. Then I immediately hoped that no one else is as devious.
He then left us to sort ourselves out and our orders were taken by a young lady who was just as polite and helpful. We ordered the tuna steak and the herb-crusted lamb fillet, both cooked rare.
We’d debated a starter but neither of us was particularly hungry seeing that we’d left our lunchtime table at six. Nothing was stopping us from sharing an easy red wine though, so we picked Côtes du Rhône and it was served lightly chilled – perfect when room temperatures exceed my age.
As soon as we started sipping the wine and trying the fresh bread, thoughtfully accompanied by unsalted butter and hummus, the helpful young lady returned to let us know a table had been vacated outside and that we could head out if we wanted to. We seized the opportunity.
Despite our not having ordered a starter, our main and only course took a fairly long time to make it to our table. When the food did arrive, it had been very thoughtfully and deliberately presented.
Plates are swapped for deep, grey slabs of slate and sides are arranged neatly around the main ingredient. A pyramid of salad, a potato purée and a bell pepper sauce were strategically located to highlight the central arrangement of lamb fillet. The herb crust coated the grilled meat finely and evenly. Picture perfect.
I cut into the thinner part of what is a naturally long and narrow fillet to find that the meat had been practically cooked through. It hadn’t lost its moisture and tasted much better than I expected for what I feared was grossly overcooked.
As I progressed, a hint of pink appeared at the centre of the meat but this was definitely not rare. Despite the difference in cooking temperature, the meat was thoroughly enjoyable, very well-seasoned and of a reasonably-sized portion.
The exact same applied to the tuna.
I could simply copy the above paragraph, swap tuna for lamb, and give an honest account of the other main course. Once again, cooked through instead of rare, the tuna remained somehow perfectly palatable.
We paid €56 for the lot. I’d picked the most expensive dish on the menu but then we hadn’t had starters and had picked a very affordable wine that would have set us back all of €5 at a supermarket in Burgundy.
The location was well worth paying for as was the supreme, if somewhat slow, service.
I suppose the most meaningful question is whether I’d recommend the place to a friend who is after a tasty, reasonably-priced meal in an informal setting.
The answer is a definite yes and the lovely view adds a hefty bonus.
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