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Life is tapas

La Vida – bar de tapas
166, Howard Street
Sliema
Tel: 7707 8615

Food: 7/10
Service: 6/10
Ambience: 6/10
Value: 8/10
Overall: 7/10

The new year has stealthily crept upon us. With hardly enough time to wave the previous one goodbye and good riddance, we’re already settling into the opening act of a fresh trip around the sun.

I like thinking of us as tiny bipeds on the very surface of a large, mostly harmless, planet, that is whizzing around a giant ball of flame, taking just a year to complete the mind-boggling journey. It places us into perspective and, should we all pause for a moment to compare our precarious position in the whole trip, it serves to cut us down to size and take our sense of self-importance down a few thousand notches.

There’s nothing I can do to interrupt or even modify the itinerary to any degree. I’m here for the ride and I’m going to enjoy the in-flight service to the full while I’m at it. Had there been a PA system, we’d listen as the hapless Captain delivered lines like, “We’re travelling at just over a hundred thousand kilometres an hour and, while I wish I were in control, I’m not. Settle in, decide what you’d like to eat, and figure out a way of making it happen.”

I’ve decided what I want to eat and I feel like tapas. But rather than attempt to figure out what’s going on in Spain without taking sides, I’ll settle for whatever I can manage on our own little Island.

We’re not new to tapas. There have been a couple of restaurants that serve them, with varying degrees of success, so we’re familiar with the format. It usually refers to small dishes that are served as they’re prepared and that give the diner the opportunity to taste a number of different dishes during the same meal.

In my experience, even if I haven’t travelled extensively across Spain (yet), it is the style of dining that’s consistent, with the dishes themselves reflecting local and regional specialities. I’m pretty sure that the notion of tapas started as a meal that’s meant to be relatively affordable. I’ve been to places that looked like rather dingy snack bars and that served incredible food at very low prices, even if you had to step over what was left of previous diners’ meals to do so.

But I’ve also paid through my nose for significantly fancier tapas, occasionally entering loud bidding for the last remaining dish with waiters who are more adept at compering a show than delivering food. In short, there’s not only a variety in the food itself but also in the manner and price at which tapas are served.

Back to our patch of earth, I recently discovered a new option for eating tapas in Sliema called ‘La Vida – Bar de tapas’. According to these guys, tapas are life and life is nothing but tapas. This is an approach I can easily get behind.

The little bar and restaurant is just off the seafront at Għar id-Dud and is a rather humble affair. Frugal furniture, traditional bullfighting posters from the era when these were hand-painted, and even prints that honour Miró and Picasso from most of the décor. It’s unpretentious and understated and this works very well for the promise of inexpensive food and good cheer.

We were greeted by two young women and they essentially invited us to sit wherever we liked. The menus are already at table, presented quite simply as a list of dishes attached to a clipboard. As we went through the list, attempting chiefly to leave some dishes out of our selection, I realised why I was feeling slightly out of place in there. All the other tables seemed to be occupied by young, attractive people speaking Spanish and I don’t fall into any of those categories.

This was the real deal

Beyond the rather straightforward food menu is a rather comprehensive list of drinks that’s focused on gin and gin cocktails. I was working the next day but I could see myself dipping into this list when I’m off the next morning. I did order a Spanish beer though, considering this a choice in favour of authenticity that I wouldn’t pay for the next day.

The first dish to be served was the tortilla de patatas, the dish we more commonly refer to as a Spanish omelette. It was served just minutes after we’d placed our order and was served warm. It’s the kind of dish that I like cold in summer and warm in winter and was very pleased with the temperature it was served at. Out of all the food we’ve stolen from around the Mediterranean I’m surprised we haven’t yet misappropriated this beauty and labelled a version of it for ourselves. It is everything that’s good in a moist, satisfying, savoury, creamy slice of goodness and it can accompany practically anything else you’re eating. Add a dish of sliced chorizo and you have a complete meal just there.

I would imagine it is hard to go wrong with tortilla but this was the real deal. And as soon as I dug my fork into it, it was time for the patatas bravas to pay a visit. This consists of potatoes that have been cut into centimetre cubes and fried, served with a slightly spicy tomato sauce on top. I consider both dishes to be sides really, even if the tortilla is perfectly happy to be had as the only dish in a quick and simple meal.

The grilled octopus took me by surprise. It tastes charred and salty on the outside and is done to just the right level of tenderness. Any more tender and it would fall apart. It is served on a lovely carrot purée that’s studded with crisp, deep-fried capers so there’s everything in one plate – the fleshy octopus, a soothing purée, and crisp flavour bombs. If I had to be picky I’d say the whole dish was a little too salty but then again, this is not the only dish you’re consuming so it has its place as one of many tapas.

Unusually, the chicken burrito is a huge portion. It is big enough to be the only item you’d need to order and comes as a very densely stuffed wrap, jam packed with shredded chicken. There’s chopped and diced avocado, tomato, cheese and onions for flavour and crunch within the gigantic wrap and I couldn’t bring myself to do more than taste it for fear of running out of space in my belly.

The final dish that night was the pulled beef arepa. Arepas are more of a South American dish in my books. The cornmeal is fried and, in the case of the one we had at La Vida, a very oily concoction. It was so oily that I found myself picking the pulled beef away from the arepa itself and simply adding tiny bits of the crunchy cornstarch to the meat rather than attempt to eat the whole thing as is intended.

By the end of our meal we realised we had probably ordered too much food. I’m used to tapas comprising small portions and some of these could have been meals all by themselves. We wound up paying €50 for the meal, including our drinks, and this is likely a skewed view into the typical prices you’d reasonably expect to pay at La Vida. If you ask the friendly girls about portion sizes they know the food well enough to be exceptionally helpful.

That will be my strategy next time around. I’ll pick the smaller portions and make sure there’s plenty of that lovely tortilla to keep me happy. If there are any gaps in my tummy I’m filling them with gin. I don’t want to circle the sun again without spirits to keep me company.

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