A comedy of errors
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Sometimes I wonder whether people like Napoleon were really great leaders or whether they had someone write out their lives in a way that sounded heroic. That would have given Napoleon the time to sit in some castle or other coming up with the sheer volume of quotes attributed to him. I get the one about an army marching on its stomach because I know I wouldn’t fight on an empty stomach.
He famously said that religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich. Had he looked forward in time to see just how powerful the guns available to the rich are, he might have given his quote a longer think. And a harder one, too.
Writing words down is easy enough but you have to be prepared to deal with them if they should ever return to haunt you.
One night last week, when cooking was not on the cards, my better half and I headed down to the Dragonara area for a quick meal at Palios. The better half swears she had a good meal there once and that we could grab a quick bite at a decent price.
She has said this since the Middle Ages, and I haven’t quite believed her because otherwise I would be hearing the same thing from others and we all know that a rumour needs more than a single source for traction. That or Facebook. Anything said on Facebook is the truth.
Off we went, parked in a convenient spot that is reserved for diners, and found Palios to be shut tight. They only serve food twice a week. Sounds like a rather mean charity kitchen.
The walk back to the car meant we passed by Quadro, with open doors, diners aplenty, and the promise of the finest of fine dining available in Malta inscribed on the menu outside.
In we walked, undeterred by the ‘smart casual’ dress code that the place implies. If we’re paying for our food I doubt they’re going to scoff at my attire. We were met by a very well-dressed man, standing tall and proud, with a hint of maître d’ about him.
He asked whether we had a reservation. We didn’t. He asked what room number we were in. None, I replied. Then he looked at us like he’d seen us the first time and led us to a table.
Menus were placed in front of us by a rather bumbling man who then scurried away to lay a table, dragging his feet as he did so. Not quite the same demeanour as maître d’.
The menus started with a mission statement, claiming that we would soon be provided with an exceptional dining experience. The word ‘exceptional’, like the humble grapefruit knife, cuts both ways.
Past the mission statement are the signature dishes that include an interesting bouillabaisse. The formidable fish stew (worryingly called a broth on the menu) is a thick stew from Provence that was born in Marseille and, judging by my experiences outside Marseille, should stay there.
At Quadro it weighs in at a hefty €30 with the option of adding half a lobster for another €42. At a total of €72, this would have to be a bouillabaisse of such stature that we’d see an increase in tourism from Marseille.
The food isn’t highly innovative or unusual. There are the fine dining equivalents of the staples and this is perfectly acceptable. Many people who are prepared to pay for fine dining are out for a more outstanding, or perhaps I should say exceptional, variant on food they know and love. If there’s an innovative streak to the menu, and you’re feeling adventurous, you can always opt for that.
Reading the menu made me wonder about the wine we’d be drinking with the meal but we had no wine menus. I asked for one and this was delivered. It is priced like a fine dining restaurant, with the Fiano di Avellino I picked costing €30.
I liked the sound of the scallops Bloody Mary on the list of starters. Seared scallop served on top of a Bloody Mary salad should prove to be an interesting balance to achieve. Having seen the lobster and prawn bisque on the menu, I guessed what the other starter would be.
For main course I tried to decide between the twice-cooked belly of pork and the fillet of beef. While I was up for fish, there’s only salmon, sea bream and sea bass on the menu, and I wasn’t in the mood for hotel food.
We weren’t told anything about fresh fish when the menus were handed over and neither was there a mention when our orders were being taken so I took it that the menu said all there is to be said about fish.
Eventually, I settled for the twice-cooked belly of pork because the description mentioned a lentil and chorizo casserole on the side while my victim picked the peppered breast of duck (duck breast sounds too pedestrian) that’s marinated in oyster sauce.
A lot of time passed between our order and the starters... Enough time to look around and notice that most other diners, with the exception of a Maltese couple on the adjacent table, were hotel guests. Also enough time to notice that the bread that was served was re-heated and cooled to a rock-like consistency within minutes.
Fifteen minutes later an amuse bouche was served. Parma ham, melon, quail egg and fig formed a neat little arrangement and, though quite predictable, was a nice touch.
Another 15 minutes passed until our starters finally made it. The scallops had been trimmed to the white flesh and seared with overenthusiastic zeal so they were cooked through. These were on top of a small salad that tasted of salad but had no hint of Bloody Mary. The presentation was quaint though, with the whole affair stacked inside one of those lockable glass jars with an orange rubber seal.
The bisque was quite lovely, tasting a bit like the assistance of a commercial stock had been enlisted, but the result was very pleasant and went down a treat.
Almost 40 minutes later, two dishes that looked like ours went past us and to the adjacent table. Quite a coincidence we figured, but the couple tucked in and I just assumed it had something to do with the stars.
Eventually, their proper dishes were served – main courses of fish and fillet – and they noticed that the duck and pork they’d been eating were neither fish nor fillet.
Great, I thought, another 40 minutes to wait. And I asked myself what the food tasted like if our neighbours couldn’t tell the difference between pork and fish.
The serving staff noticed that there had been quite a mix-up. They apologised profusely and said our food would be with us soon. Ten minutes later we were served.
The star on my dish was the gratin Dauphinoise. This simple potato and milk (or cream) delicacy from the Rhone is the cause of much discussion among chefs in the area but is, in fact, a side dish brought to its very essence, and the chef had done a decent job of it.
The pork had been cooked at least the stated twice and perhaps a couple of times more, but it was beautifully flavoured and I went through half of it before I’d eaten my fill.
The duck was also quite overdone by our standards but then we both love it rare and this isn’t to everyone’s liking. The marinade and pepper created an interesting counterpoint to the rich duck breast and made the dish a good one but nowhere near a great one.
We paid €115 for the meal that, while served in a rather pretentious setting, was nothing we couldn’t get elsewhere. I’m afraid that the more a restaurant promises, the more is expected of it.
And fine restaurants go down in history for the exceptional dishes they’ve served and not their statements on the menu.
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