Hit by a saucy offer
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A new James Bond movie looms, casting the typically threatening shadow over movies that are released in the same week. Critics will complain about this and that, yet we’ll eventually watch it, love the ride, and talk about it the next day.
My issue with double-oh seven is that he is, by Ian Fleming’s own admission, “not a gourmet” and that “in England he lived on grilled soles, oeufs cocotte and cold roast beef with potato salad”. It all sounds like hangover food to me, quite possibly to do with the vodka, Champagne, and cocktails involving both that he consumed throughout the books and movies.
And while the dashing secret agent seems to hunger more for the fairer sex than for olfactory pleasure, he does guzzle Beluga caviar on more than one occasion. Throughout generations of Bond there have been references to dressed crab, smoked salmon and roasted grouse, to mention a few delicacies. All part of his mystique, no doubt.
If there isn’t already a James Bond cookbook out there, I suppose it is just a matter of time.
Far less Bond-like but quite possibly just as rough on a morning after a night of revelry, a party of six not-quite-secret agents headed over to Mareluna in Sliema. The restaurant occupies part of the back end of the Preluna Hotel and actually shares a back door so it is possible to walk through the hotel and into the restaurant.
The décor is something of a welcome surprise. Time, money and effort have been invested to turn the space into quite a splendid trattoria. The kitchen takes a central position and is open on three sides so one can easily observe the chefs as they prepare their wares.
We were met by a man who was evidently there to do his duty but showed no signs of enthusiasm. He pointed us to a table of six and brought menus round. We were the only people in the restaurant, and would be until we eventually left, so it wasn’t like we were causing too much trouble. Everyone’s entitled to a bad day, I suppose.
The menus are quite extensive, covering typical Italian antipasti, pasta, fish and meat main courses, and pizza that I’d heard is quite remarkable. The person who recommended the place mentioned their fresh fish as being a highlight of the restaurant. I felt like we’d be spoilt for choice.
Eventually, after much deliberation, we all settled on what we thought would do the trick. The health-conscious ones were starting with simple salads like the traditional Caprese with buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes and basil or a beef fillet carpaccio with Parmesan. Another decidedly tasty antipasto is the San Daniele cured ham with buffalo mozzarella.
My burning need for carbohydrates steered me in the direction of the pasta list. The dilemma on occasions like these, when I really feel like a pizza but know this will rule out a main course, makes pasta the perfect compromise. Linguine nere with shrimps and the mention of chilli sealed my choice.
To my left, the man with the golden taste buds ordered the most original choice on the pasta page – Crepes à la Maitre d’Hotel. This promised to be a dish of pasta that had been rolled inside a crepe and then baked. Interesting.
Only one of us had the courage to skip a starter although, as often happens in these situations, ended up tasting almost all of ours as we sympathised with the empty space between her cutlery.
The menu states that all food is prepared to order and that we’d have to wait a while longer than usual. It was quite accurate in this respect. While we waited, a long serving dish of simple bruschetta and a bowl of olives kept us all company.
When our food finally turned up, it was served by the same rather sullen man and another one who made up for this by being polite and cordial. My linguine were as black as ever and served, at my request, with more chilli than usual. The chilli helped cut through the typically flat texture of this dish and made for a very enjoyable first course.
Tiny shrimps dotted the dish and the wine-based sauce that coated the pasta tasted good enough for me to want to dip bread into it. My hopes started to soar.
The rest of the starters were neatly laid out and made with really fresh ingredients of a surprisingly high quality. The mozzarella was simply perfect, the cured ham delicate and freshly sliced and the carpaccio had been prepared by the hands of a master at this elusive process.
Equally delightful was the bizarre crepe, with pasta rolled inside the crepe that had, in turn, been sliced and served in rings packed with flavour and texture. To be quite honest, the food was very hard to fault at this point.
While we waited for our main course we commented about the selection of music. It seemed like a collection of pop tracks from the early 1990s, played at a volume loud enough for us to clearly make out every track and express our amusement.
We eventually took to trying to guess which cheesy track would follow but the repertoire in our collective memories would never match the cheese of this playlist.
Main courses took quite a while. I hadn’t ordered fish because the choice of sea bream or sea bass isn’t quite what I had in mind. If I want farmed fish, I can eat it practically anywhere. Any fish apart from that on the menu was never offered to us and the tiny list of daily specials that was at table when we got there didn’t mention fish either.
The veal Milanese ordered by the clever one who’d chosen the pasta-in-a-crepe was really quite lovely – with a dry breaded exterior and a tender and delicately flavoured interior. The steaks were unfortunately quite a let-down.
My rib-eye had been liberally doused in a cream-based sauce that had all but congealed around it and carried a few peppercorns.
When ordering a steak one is given a choice of pepper or porcini mushroom sauce. I picked the pepper while Brian ordered fillet with porcini sauce. Both steaks had been completely covered in their respective sauces.
I scraped off a generous portion of this thickened liquid to attack the steak it concealed. The steak itself was very tender, cooked to the right temperature and had all the telltale signs of an excellent cut of beef.
Quite why it had been smothered in goo is a question I cannot possibly figure out an answer for.
The veal saltimbocca was a very generous portion, with three slices of veal topped with a slice of parma ham on top and a sauce similar to the steak sauce in consistency but carrying strong evidence of sage in it. Again, the sauce turned what could have been a fantastic dish into one that was hardly remarkable.
The girl who’d ordered the same linguine I had as a main course portion was surprised to see it had been served in what could have been a large serving dish. Not in a week could she possibly have gone through all that pasta. It tasted far less interesting than mine had, bereft of a healthy dose of chilli, and was naturally only partly consumed.
We paid €30 each by the end of it. This is a very fair price for practically two courses each and I’m sure one can get by with even less.
If the pizza is as good as it is reputed to be, it will be perfectly possible to enjoy the lovely space without going anywhere near the meat and spend considerably less than we had.
I’ll be going back for the fish next time, and make sure that if there is even the mention of a sauce with it, I’ll expressly state my aversion to any gratuitous liquids.
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