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A number, a street

59 Republic
59, Republic Street,
Valletta
Tel: 7926 4613

Food: 8/10
Service: 7/10
Ambience: 9/10
Value: 7/10
Overall: 8/10

Five out of every four people I know have problems with fractions. If the error in that sentence didn’t jump out at you instantly, you’re like me and many others who aren’t destined to a life dominated by numbers. We manage to sail through life depending on the ones who are more handy with numbers when it comes to the crunch.

To make matters worse, like many others, I’ve shifted most of my memory work to my prosthetic brain, the device in my pocket that stores all the numbers I can’t be bothered to remember. In the highly unlikely scenario that you’re a digital native and are reading a newspaper, you don’t remember a time that required to you to remember the phone number of your family and friends.

Even then, people like me wrote numbers in a little book. Losing that little book meant a lengthy scramble to reassemble the fragments into a list that put us back in touch with the world.

I was made aware of this last week. I called an accomplice, a man with whom I have shared an unhealthy number of meals and escapades that’s too long to remember. Some of the adventures have been forgotten by both of us and it is just as well. I asked if he’d join me for a meal, knowing what the reply would be. An unashamed gourmand will hardly ever refuse this sort of proposal.

I suggested Valletta. It’s transforming into quite the culinary capital and this metamorphosis couldn’t have happened any sooner. The city once fed knights and grandmasters of insatiable appetites so it is only fitting that a few centuries later we’re returning to where we should have been all along.

The accomplice, as great with numbers as I am, said, “Let’s go to that place that’s called some number and some street name.” Well, there’s more than one of those in Valletta. It took some prodding to realise that he was speaking about the recently opened place on Republic Street, the one that replaced the restaurant formerly known as the Blue Room. Neither of us could remember the number but we both knew where we were headed. Naming a restaurant after the address is a little like calling your three kids one, two, and three – practical but rather lazy.

We arrived a little early and were the first patrons so we picked a table close to the entrance. The tables further in looked like they’d be quite crowded if more people turned up, mainly because the dining area is quite tiny and they’ve made the absolute best they could of the space.

The decor is really quite lovely. Gentle, green hues across a multitude of complementary textures cover the walls and make up the upholstery of chairs and banquettes to yield a beautifully pared-back aesthetic that feels tastefully upmarket. The music, perhaps a tiny bit loud when there are only two seated for a meal, is a selection of cover versions of popular tracks that is elevated just a notch above lift music so it recedes into the background as it should. Someone has crafted this experience and done a good job of it.

I can see myself returning time and again, and plan to do so as soon as the opportunity presents itself

The girl who greeted us is polite and did all she could to help us out. She’s got all it takes to deliver service to match the place but hasn’t been trained enough by whoever is running the show. I wouldn’t expect a Cordon Bleu to be called a Gordon Blue within these sumptuously clad walls.

The menus are those of a chef who is enamoured with classic cuisine, leaning towards the French style that has, for more than a century, been the de facto standard by which others are measured. We can’t seem to shake this. Take a look at where most Michelin stars are handed out and you’ll see the vast majority encouraging this style.

My accomplice and I quickly realised that we wanted to try every dish on the menu, including some of the daily specialities. We finally made our choices, relayed them to our ever-helpful host, and added a glass of wine each as part of our commitment to five-a-day fruit and veg consumption. This turned out to be unnervingly prescient.

First to arrive were two small bread rolls of the sort that have been half-baked and then finished for us so they’re really fresh, a little bowl of olives and some truffle butter. Within a few minutes, our starters were served and we looked at each other’s dish enviously. Before digging in we agreed we’d eat half and swap. That’s what a partner in crime is for.

I started with the duo of prawn, selfishly picking the less complex of flavours first.

A carpaccio of prawn, topped with toasted pumpkin seed and sitting atop a  wakame seaweed and baby greens salad, was formed into a neat circular mound with four tempura prawns criss-crossed next to it. I found the wakame to be a little overbearing, with a very understated dressing to the prawn. We disagreed about the tempura prawn. I like tempura to fit its description and this was a rather compact batter but the flavour was on point.

The other starter, a beef and wild boar lasagne, was exceptional. It is the right kind of rich, the sort that makes you think of old money and endless lawn, with a satisfying savoury mouth and a lasting complex finish, thanks in the large part to the intensity of the boar. Fresh asparagus on top is a touch of genius and this dish alone is worth remembering the address and returning for.

The portion size is perfect, too. I was a little hesitant, knowing too much lasagne will dampen the rest of the meal but eight bites are enough to taste and enjoy without being too full to enjoy anything else.

Our main course was also served after just the right wait. There’s a rhythm going on in the kitchen that shows a solid understanding of timing and I can presume that the size of the restaurant shouldn’t put enough strain on the system to dent this.

Our host had kindly pointed out that the main courses were served with French fries and that, should we want mashed potatoes or sweet potato fries, we’d ‘have to pay more’. That’s fine. I understand that pricing of menus outside a restaurant in busy streets is done to attract passing-by trade so add-ons are an inevitability. We were happy to eat what was served and didn’t add more potatoes to the potatoes, as it were.

This time around, knowing we’d be sharing again, it was only fair that I started with the more complex dish and allowed my co-conspirator to start with the fish. The striploin turned out to be one of those half-disappointments where the cooking technique, the flavour and the presentation were excellent while the meat itself wasn’t a great cut. I like the way this part of the cow mixes a moderate fat content with decent texture but pricing it at a very attractive €24 makes it hard to buy a more expensive ingredient.

A rather handsome, copper receptacle held the skinny French fries that we were sharing. We took a couple each and quickly dismissed them, agreeing that we’d have formed a more favourable impression of the place had they been left out altogether.

The fillet of sea bass was a significantly more enjoyable dish. It is possible that I’ve eaten the best fish out of the kitchen of the man seated across the table and for him to be impressed it takes skill. Two fillets, with a crisp skin and perfectly juicy flesh, were arranged in a snazzy tower, sandwiching a deep-fried fish raviolo that was bursting with flavour.

We ended with a coffee and paid €100 for the lot, before heading back out onto Republic Street. The location is hard to beat, the interior could make most meals feel a touch more special and the kitchen shows an admirable commitment to pursuing the classical tradition while adding its own dash of personality. I can see myself returning time and again, and plan to do so as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Luckily, I know exactly where it is so I have no need to push my memory outside its numerate comfort zone.

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