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A restrospective (sic)

Ed Eats’s annual round-up contains a lot less doom and gloom than usual.

Twinkly lights and shopping for presents mean one thing – we’re about to eat more in a month than we do all year. By the time you’re reading this, we’re rushing headlong into the week where matters really reach a frenzied peak.

It also means I get to look back at a year of eating and writing about it and, as is now traditional, I take a stab at putting the whole thing into perspective.

I’ve often tried to summarise the year into a couple of words. ‘Poor service’ managed to summarise quite a few of them and, this being 10 years into my adventures with food and a keyboard, I think it’s about time I change that.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that it is human nature to accept a long-standing calamity and simply deal with it with as much resignation as we allow ourselves. It seems to be who we are, a nation content to put up with mostly poor service if it means our bellies are full by the end of the ordeal. To be fair, there has been a steady improvement in the quality and nature of this essential part of the dining experience.

The second is a more optimistic outlook and it deals with the spread of dining styles that’s now available to us. If I were to pick a couple of words to sum up the year, they would be ‘more variety’.

As we become a significantly more multicultural society it is hardly surprising that this should bring with it a broader selection of international kitchens. But the variety doesn’t stop there. We’ve also seen local restaurateurs take bold and decisive steps away from the menu that considers salmon steaks and chicken breast to be suitable mainstays.

Had you asked me, this time last year, whether I’d expect to be eating traditionally Afghan food that’s prepared while you wait by a chef from Afghanistan, I’d quite possibly have dismissed this as nothing more than wishful thinking. Yet this was the year I got to try a tiny eatery in Ħamrun called Afghan Natural Food and I’m so glad I did so.

The food is homely and genuinely delicious but there’s more to it. It shows that the population that eats out is ready for cuisine that’s closer to the fringe. We’re ready to stray from the comfort of familiarity and into the wonders of the unknown. This is almost a regression from the boredom of adulthood into the inquisitiveness of youth and we’re all the better for it.

There are more tell-tale signs, sometimes hiding within very familiar eateries. Gochi, the lovely little sushi place in St Julian’s, has added more dishes from the Japanese repertoire and I’ve bagged some really delicious ramen there. After we’d completely Westernised sushi it was about time we progressed further into the mysterious kitchen of the land of the rising sun.

Speaking about this, I must briefly mention eating my way through central Japan. I won’t go into detail because I covered it superficially a few months ago but I ought to mention that while one wouldn’t always travel because of food, it is worth being more adventurous with your dining if you happen to be away from our shores. Of course, it is safe to stick to familiar food but it would be a shame to spend any time in a foreign country and to miss the opportunity to really explore the cuisine while you’re there. Except if you’re in Wales, of course.

We’ve also seen local restaurateurs take bold and decisive steps away from the menu that considers salmon steaks and chicken breast to be suitable mainstays

Back home, I encourage you to occasionally suspend the perfectly valid habit of returning to places you know and love to discover a little more of what these islands now have to offer. It needn’t be a giant leap. From the exceptionally modestly priced Fatayer in Gżira, a Syrian take on pastry-based street food, to the Korean part of the menu at the fantastic Club Sushi in Paceville, you can hope across continents without breaking the bank or reeling in horror at an animal on your plate that you never knew existed.

The second kind of variety is encouraged by a more enlightened market. For this, we the eaters take part of the credit. I’d pat you all on the back had this gesture not been relegated to a patronising mockery by the interwebs.

The rest of the credit goes to the intrepid chefs who have taken our menus by the offal and given them a good, hard shake.

A shining star in this area is the wholly unexpected Fat Louie’s. The cheeky, little place in Paceville has ditched the traditional menu in favour of offal and bone marrow, truffle shaved on mac and cheese, tongue pastrami and poutine. There seems to be no end to road of discovery that the chefs have embarked on and I hope it stretches far and beyond what the eye can see. They recognise that they’re not for everyone but there’s the rest of the restaurants to cater for the masses.

Hammett’s gastropub in Sliema hasn’t really gone nuts with the menu, even if it is quite pleasantly creative, but they’ve shaken up the process. They serve starters so you’re encouraged to lego your meal together, adding tiny components to create a delicious whole. It’s not Tapas and it’s not the three-course formula either. It’s the approach they believe makes sense to some and those who grow to love it will be unlikely to have things any other way.

I’ve also been lucky to have some memorable moments at restaurants that don’t base their premise on being unusual. One of the surprises of the year was at Danny’s, a delight for your senses wrapped in the humility of a snack bar in Qormi. They take ingredients we’re used to and turn these into daily delights that have the ability to turn a terrible day on its head as early as lunchtime.

In a way, it reminds me of the ever-splendid Stanjata in Valley Road. Ever since I walked in the first time, the able hands at Stanjata have maintained an admirable consistency that some of the fancier restaurants in Malta have plenty to learn from. The food is excellent, the service special and the pricing as keen as it gets.

Onwards and upwards we progress to restaurants like Adesso in Valletta that, despite the unlikely setting, serves an inspired version of what could be considered fine dining dishes that changes practically daily and is consistently enjoyable.

Giuseppi’s really managed to get our palate enthused with their highly imaginative and perfectly executed menu, all within a beautiful setting. The service is on point, the food makes excellent use of seasonal ingredients and the wine list has plenty to keep conversations flowing.

The year has, quite understandably, dealt a fair share of disappointments. I won’t dwell on these though. Perhaps a combination of good luck and my having slowly acquired the ability to predict a disaster has resulted in a year with many more hits than misses. There’s that and there’s the progress towards a more savvy and demanding market to give credit to, so I have you, dear readers, to thank for that.

That’s it for this year. In what seems like a blink of an eye and a lick of the lips, it’s Christmas again and, without much of a pause, I’ll be continuing my forays of discovery with the intention of sharing them. I look forward to a year of even more unlikely dining, a creeping improvement in service, and hopefully more travels to share.

May next year bring with it at least one more step in your voyage of culinary discovery and may it propose even more variety than we already have. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a better year than the one that’s coming to an end, no matter how fantastic it was.

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