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The search for authenticity

Rasoi
Dean Hamlet,
Triq il-Qaliet,
St Julian’s
Tel: 9949 2513

Food: 6/10
Service: 6/10
Ambience: 7/10
Value: 7/10
Overall: 6.5/10

Words are slippery. Their meaning evolves and mutates so there comes a day when you look back at a word and find it has completely changed its skin. When I was a kid, for instance, a net was something I took fishing with me. Today we have two versions of the word. A net remains a net, but ‘the’ net refers to the infrastructure of the web. Well, a web was something I saw spiders on back then.

The word ‘authentic’ was unassailable. It stood for everything that was real and unfettered. Now, when I see the word authentic, I am gripped by a body-wide cringe. It has taken on two meanings – either that whatever is being described as authentic has been painstakingly manufactured to mimic something real or that we’re about to experience something that’s a bit rubbish.

Thanks to an unlikely set of circumstances, I recently found myself on a fashion shoot for a large UK fashion brand. We toured the Island with around a 100 kilos worth of models (that’s the sum total of their weight) and a gaggle of experts at turning a regular T-shirt into a desirable garment. Every time a background looked good, they changed it to something that looked ugly. “Let’s stand in front of that broken house. It looks more authentic.”

To me, the house looked like the occupant had died a decade ago and no one had bothered doing anything about the state of repair of the façade and front door. To them it was ‘authentic’, it fit the stereotype they’d formed of island dwelling. Ever since we parted ways with the Kingdom, we were basically condemned to a harrowing set of struggles that included peeling whitewash and shoddy front doors. And it was this simulation of authenticity that they so desperately sought to portray.

Last week I found myself in the mood for Indian food and thought I’d try something new. I came across a few mentions of a restaurant called Rasoi, that described itself as an authentic Indian restaurant with, quite unusually, an open kitchen. The word that I shall not type again for the time being caused a bit of concern, but I battled my mistrust and headed over.

Does it satisfy the craving for a decent curry? I suppose it does

It is located inside Dean Hamlet, deep within the hotel complex itself so don’t expect to see a restaurant if you decide to visit. You go through the main hotel entrance and walk through until you get to the restaurant itself. They’ve done it up pretty decently and have quite cleverly divided the dining area into two sections so that it doesn’t feel like a canteen.

The man who greeted us asked whether we had a reservation and, since there was no one else in the restaurant, I wondered whether he was joking. He wasn’t and we didn’t have a reservation so we essentially picked the table we wanted. He brought menus and gave us time to peruse them.

The menu starts with a comprehensive list of the main spices used in their cooking, complete with a description of their effects on the human body. Fenugreek, for instance, increases libido, controls the effects of menopause, treats arthritis, asthma, bronchitis and skin problems, among others. I wonder how the pharmaceutical industry hasn’t had it outlawed.

The menu goes from starters to main courses, the latter categorised by the main ingredient using a tabbed format to speed up access to your favourites. The drinks menu is more extensive than I expected it to be, including some lovely, Sicilian artisanal beers. We made our food selections, added a bottle of Sauvignon blanc, and relayed these to our host who didn’t take any notes.

This always impresses me. My memory has more gaps than a stripper’s fishnet tights so anyone who can remember anything rises in my esteem. Well, he couldn’t get our water order right and even added an item of food we hadn’t ordered so I’d have been happier had he used a pen and paper.

While we waited for our starters, a couple sat at a table across the room from us. They’d gone out for a proper fight and, maybe it’s because I was sitting in the opposite corner, I could hear their bickering louder than I would have liked to. Bickering is understating the matter.

We’re talking about unchecked aggression here, with harsh words exchanged and line-in-the-sand ultimatums handed out. It was almost comical, like listening in to a conversation between two characters in a movie by the Coen brothers.

Luckily, we were distracted by the arrival of our starters. I’d ordered the Amritsari Machchli, mainly because I couldn’t for the life of me predict how the name is pronounced but also because I rarely order fish when I’m eating Indian food. It is a battered and shallow-fried fish that’s citrus driven, lightly spiced and surprisingly tasty.

I felt we were onto something here because I could taste the fish through the spices. The better half had satisfied her sweet tooth early on in the meal, ordering a chutney platter to begin with. This consists of garlic naan and three sauces – an apple chutney, a cool and refreshing mint sauce and what I imagined was mango chutney. I thoroughly enjoyed the apple chutney, mainly thanks to the way the ripe fruit opens up the affair with a disarming sweetness and then goes on to a lingering fiery finish.

The masala poppadoms are a bit of an oddity because they’re topped with chopped onion and tomato and a bit of lemon juice. The taste is fine – it reminded me of what an Italian bruschetta would be had it made it to India – but all three ingredients lose their liquids to the crisp poppadum, turning it into a rather sad and pliable affair.

Warm plates turned up before our main course was served – a tiny touch for the kitchen that goes a long way towards making us patrons feel cared about. I started with the chicken korma, knowing that my dish was much more complex in flavours. It has a lovely ripeness to it, giving it a fruity, sweet body with plenty of coriander on the nose and tender bits of chicken in it. This is as far from the usual sticky mess of korma as I’ve experienced and I began to realise what they probably mean by ‘authentic’. I’d never order such a sweet dish as a personal preference but it does work really well.

My dish of Gosht Bhuna is prepared by cooking the lamb in its spices first. The meat is tender but not exceptionally so and the sauce has a very mild heat, is quite enthusiastically salted, and by comparison to the korma, a very generic curry that doesn’t really stand out for any reason. The saffron rice pulao I’d ordered to go with it, on the other hand, was perfect.

I paid €75 for the meal which included €25 for the wine so it’s pretty much on the mark. The question I kept asking myself was whether Rasoi is actually ‘authentic’. Short of visiting India and eating all across the enormous country I can’t possibly tell. Does it satisfy the craving for a decent curry? I suppose it does but then again, so does practically every other ‘Indian’ restaurant I’ve been to in Malta. So I’m still on the hunt for one that pleasantly surprises me.

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