Winning at consistency

Trabuxu Bistro
8/9, South Street,
Tel: 2122 0357

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

Today’s story starts eight years ago. But first, we need a rambling preamble.

Thanks to a combination of what I do for a living and my literally insatiable appetite for as broad a variety of food as I can shove into my mouth, I wind up speaking to people who are somehow connected to the industry of feeding people for money.

Inevitably, a discussion turns into a complaint. Everyone feels like their problem is unique and I don’t contradict them because, to a certain degree, this is always true. Even if the problem stems from the same origin, it has a different result on different people. The most common complaint is the near impossibility of employing the right people in the kitchen and the right people to handle service.

Well, I’m afraid that problem is simply restating the issue that everyone who employs anyone has to face. There is a solution and it is not a simple one so the only ones who succeed are the most dogged and the most determined. Restaurateurs that are sufficiently self-aware, the ones who have a crystal-clear vision and know exactly what it is they want to deliver, manage to find a solution. The others simply complain about the issue and blame the staff that they have decided to employ for all their ills. I have little sympathy for the latter.

Happily, winning at this game pays off in spades. Those who know the exact nature of their promise to hungry patrons will work hard themselves and will employ people with the right attitude, those who will be willing to learn the ways of the restaurant and who will live and breathe the spirit of the restaurant, in good times and in bad. This means that every time anyone pays a visit, their experience will be consistent, no matter whose shift it is in the kitchen or the front of house.

And winning at the consistency game is the way restaurants stand the test of time. The ones we know and love, the ones we return to without thinking about it, and more importantly, the ones we recommend to friends and enemies are those that we know will be reliable and consistent. Achieve this, and you might as well be printing money and making many people happy. This is considered a noble outcome on my planet.

So, let’s go back eight years. It was the time that the lovely wine bar called Trabuxu had already extended its offering to a cosy bistro across the road. I paid a visit and walked away favourably impressed. Then life took over and I wound up eating my way across the Islands without much time to return.

When I started writing about food I hadn’t planned ahead. I hadn’t thought of where this would end so I couldn’t have predicted how it would have affected the rest of my eating habits. In time, however, I made a few adjustments and one of them was a promise to myself that I’d return to my favourite restaurants whenever I could because eating out can’t always be about surprises – there is comfort in predictability.

Trabuxu Bistro is one of the places on my very short list of restaurants I return to and is always top of the list whenever anyone asks me where they should eat out in Valletta. “If you want a sea view and poor service, there’s this place. If you want this kind of cuisine and the formality that goes with it, there’s this other place. If you want to be sure that the food, the wineand the service are on point every single time, then go to Trabuxu Bistro.” I’ve said it so many times I can hear my own emphatic intonation inside my head.

Always top of the list whenever anyone asks me where they should eat out in Valletta

You might know someone who can place an old candle and a broken clock on a wooden box with seemingly no thinking involved. The resulting composition could grace a magazine cover. And no matter how hard you try, you cannot recreate the beauty. There’s something effortless and seemingly haphazard about Trabuxu and it just works.

It feels very much like a French bistro, with huge paintings on the walls, an assortment of little decorations wherever there’s room for a shelf to hang, and old signs that celebrate the origins of the building itself as home of the erstwhile Nani music shop. The red-and-white chequered table cloths add to the charm of wooden furniture and quaintly mismatched chairs. There’s a tasteful selection of music at a comfortable volume and the lighting is just right. The result of it all is a welcoming space that forms the perfect backdrop for a conversation over a meal and that’s what a bistro is about.

Well, that and a menu that changes often, usually according to what’s in season. I’ve been to bistros that have no menu and rely on a blackboard that’s wiped clean every night. Trabuxu does a bit of both. There’s a printed menu that changes often as well as a board with daily specialities.

The board had some delights on it such as fried anchovies with capers, venison on a lentil base and a veal ribeye. The menu itself is just as inviting and seems to cavort with the desires of the daring with the same ease as it dances with more conservative palates. There’s steak and chicken and pasta with shrimps and marrows. There is also Cajun spiced quail, pasta with duck’s leg and calf liver.

Reading through the starters I stopped at the panko crumbed pig’s fry. A pig’s fry is made out of the bits of the pig that the butcher won’t sell you. As a huge fan of offal, I can’t pass this by. You either love offal or you hate it. I don’t think I know anyone who is sitting on the fence where offal is concerned. Maybe it’s because fences are terribly uncomfortable to sit on, particularly the ones that end in little, triangular spikes. The better half wanted to start with a soup and then get down to serious business with venison for mains.

I was set on eating pig so I went with the confit pork belly with crackling on it. A bottle of Pinot Noir from Burgundy would somehow have to work with all we’d ordered.

While we waited, the lovely man behind the bar brought a wickedly tasty sun-dried tomato and butter beans dip and a basket of fresh bread. He is the most charmingly helpful man you could hope for and I would go so far as to say he was the star of the service show that night.

Despite a restaurant with not a single vacant seat, our starters were served within a very reasonable time and the presentation is consistent with the cheerful informality of the place. My pig’s fry, a selection of offal that’s coated in that crisp breaded batter that the Japanese perfected, was served in a jauntily folded brown paper bag next to a little tower of salad topped with gherkins and a little pot of spicy tomato sauce. The combination of crisp batter, tender and full-flavoured meat, the spicy kick of the sauce and the acerbic pickle is a sure way of making your mouth a better place.

The better half offered a spoonful of soup. I tasted it and the tomato and bell pepper make for a sweet and heart-warming concoction. She asked what mine was like. I said, “Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” At that point, I could see a future where I had this dish three times a day.

Our main courses were equally as accomplished. If I had to be picky, I’d work on the presentation of the venison dish. The dark coloured meat and the same colour of the lentil base blended into one and I could think of a couple of ways to make the visual work a little better. Then I noticed that I was somehow seeking a way of faulting what was an exceptionally flavoursome and meticulously executed dish and I just shut up and savoured the little ration that was begrudgingly passed onto me.

My pork belly was fabulous. Confit makes for a very tender piece of meat and the crackling adds a deliciously crunchy element. On the side, at the suggestion of our man at the bar, I’d ordered a cauliflower gratin and it was 10 times as exciting as it sounds.

We had no room for dessert by the end of it and paid €90 for the lot. Considering what we’re used to paying for food, this is pretty good value for two excellent courses and a decent bottle of wine. Add the remarkable experience and the fact that you can be sure this will be repeated any day of the week and you have a combination that’s pretty hard to beat.

Just make sure you book a table. We were told we’d have to wait for half an hour when we turned up without a reservation and I’m so thrilled I decided to wait it out.


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