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Very nearly there

Marina Club VW
Vault 16,
Valletta Waterfront
Valletta
Tel: 7922 2016

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

It’s hard to write about food on an empty stomach. I sat, staring at the terrifying white screen of a blank text document, and my thoughts were drowned by the sound of a grumbling stomach. So I took a little break and grilled a steak.

One of the most important relationships I have is the one with my butcher. He ages steak for me and he knows exactly what I like and dislike. Our relationship is based on the knowledge that if he sells me meat I like, I will go back and tell him that he’d delivered the goods. If the meat isn’t up to standard, I’ll go back and feed it to him. There’s nothing like this incentive to keep a healthy flow of meat coming my way and money going towards him.

Now that I’m fed, I can think about what I sat here to write in the first place and I can’t think of a better way to do so than with a large chunk of cow in my stomach. The story started with a recommendation from a gourmand I trust blindly. He said he’d eaten a remarkable steak, one he knew I’d like. I asked where this was and he said it was at a restaurant at the Valletta Waterfront.

I hesitated for a moment. There are so many places there that seem hell-bent on selling poor food to hapless tourists that I never quite know which one to trust. But I had a trustworthy tip so I allowed it to linger in my mind until I had the opportunity to pay a visit.

The first time I visited Marina Club VW (letters which I presume reinforce the location at the Valletta Waterfront rather than paying tribute to the car brand) I was with a group of people and we decided to share Tomahawk steaks. We started with the recommended mix of local delicacies, presumably aimed at the thousands of tourists who make their way through the location every year. I was a little sceptical because there are many ways this can go but it turned out to be a mix of grilled, in-house pork sausage, breaded and fried sheep cheese, and the usual spread of fresh Maltese bread, olives, bigilla and peppered cheese.

It is a relatively humble spread that we couldn’t seem to get enough of and we reminded ourselves and each other that we had steak on its way. Walking out to take a call was an eye-opener. On my way back into the restaurant I saw the huge steaks going into an oven packed with charcoal for a high-temperature stint in a smoky environment and was filled with anticipation. If they get the cooking temperature right we were in for a treat.

And we were. The steak was served cut into large chunks of meat that had been cooked to a restrained medium so it was charred on the outside and red all the way through. I had to give it to the man who’d recommended this place. The steak was pretty close to perfect. The guys at Marina Club even brought out hot lava slabs for those who wanted their steak done a little more than medium. All these poor souls had to do was take their pick and place it on the hot stone until it was done to their liking. This is such an elegant solution to a variety of preferences around the table that I’m surprised it is not a staple at every steakhouse.

We were sheltering from what was a rather warm day so we opted to sit inside the restaurant. As with some of the other places along this strip, the interior has been done in a way that respects the beauty of the vaulted ceiling and it’s hard to go wrong when you do this. There is the snazzy addition of a criss-crossed wine rack that forms the entire rear section of the restaurant and this keeps the place smart and understated.

I walked out feeling like I’d won the steak lottery and planned to return as soon as I could. A couple of weeks later I did, with the better half in tow this time. She’d heard me rave about that Tomahawk and was curious.

This time, we decided to eat on the outside terrace. The view is what it is. No matter how many times I look across the Grand Harbour towards Cottonera I have to catch my breath, astounded at how smart our predecessors were at constructing eminently functional beauty. I wonder at what point we completely lost our way.

Out here on a quiet week night I expected to eat in relative quiet, but the restaurant is really quite popular. We were greeted by a young man with whom we had that brief moment of awkwardness while we all figured out that we do, in fact, speak the same language.

With that cleared, he proceeded to charm us with his helpful, cheerful and pleasant manner. He is the kind of guy that makes excellent service feel so effortless that it makes me wonder why this is not the standard. He knows the food and knows how to recommend it. He knows how to give us space to think and, even if he was quite rushed that night, often running into the restaurant to keep up with the demand, he always gave us all the time we needed, making us feel like we were his only guests.

He told us about a number of specialities for the evening and I was immediately sold at the prospect of a USDA prime ribeye because it is an excellent, if hardly responsible, source of meat. The better half was happy to ditch her craving for steak at the mention of fresh tuna that they’d serve grilled.

We took our time to pick starters. I was tempted by both the seafood fritto misto and the mussels in a coconut broth but we realised that their seafood platter contained all of that so we ordered one to share.

As we waited, a colleague of my favourite waiter brought a small basket of Maltese bread and kunserva with basil and garlic. As amuse bouche goes this is quite nondescript but we’d ordered a bottle of Syrah and I decided to amuse my mouth with the red liquid instead.

The platter is quite generous. There were neonati fritters that are quite delicious, perfectly crisp on the outside and a bit gooey inside with a citrus kick for fun and flavour. There’s tiny shrimp, fried so they can be eaten head and all, in what is possibly the most enjoyable way of eating this little scavenger. The taste of shrimp is in the shell and at this size the ratio of shell to meat is all in favour of flavour. The fried squid was just about right but nothing to rave about. There’s a house tartare and mayonnaise in their own little bowls to dip all this in.

Cured salmon, cut thickly, runs rings around the cheap smoked salmon that is unfortunately so pervasive. It does take more effort to prepare but the work involved pays off in spades. The final dish, surprisingly filled with clams instead of mussels, was the star of the starters. They’re cooked with garlic and cherry tomatoes and leave you with a subtle black pepper kick.

Main courses followed with reasonable pace. My steak was quite a thin cut and had been cooked well beyond the medium rare I’d requested. I ate around the tenderloin and left most of the rest. By this time I was quite sated so I didn’t force myself to eat meat I wasn’t thrilled with. It was a pity because the meat itself was an excellent cut. Our ever-helpful waiter noticed that I’d stopped eating and asked if all was well. I said that my steak was overcooked and he immediately said he’d replace it with one cooked to my liking but I thanked him and turned down the offer. I knew they’re capable of cooking an excellent steak based on my previous visit so I didn’t really need any more proof.

The tuna steak was cooked to the perfect medium rare. It was very sparingly seasoned, a good thing in my books, allowing the flavour of the fish to do all the talking. As tuna cuts go, this isn’t among the best but then higher grade tuna rarely makes it to our tables because it is more lucrative to export it.

Paying €40 for the steak alone bumped up the cost of our meal to €90 without the wine. Admittedly, it cost more than all of the steaks on the menu making the slip-up with the timing all the more painful. Luckily I’d been before so I’m convinced of the ability of the Marina Club VW kitchen to throw a Tomahawk in the right direction. As things are, they’re a few notches of consistency away from climbing up towards the top of my list of sources of excellent steak.

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