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I kid you not

Ta’ Philip
29, St Anthony Street,
Għajnsielem
Tel” 2156 1965

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

I was in Gozo over the weekend, a trip I that I enjoy during the cooler months and despise during the summer. It could easily be the last time I venture across the straits that separate the two main islands of our archipelago until October.

I don’t need to extol all the virtues of the smaller island – if you’ve been you know the drill. I am enamoured by the relative lack of apartment buildings, the greener countryside, sensible prices for food and drink, and the contrast that exists, crammed within such a small surface area.

On Sunday morning, for instance, I was walking around Rabat after a ridiculously early breakfast, killing time before my second breakfast. I refuse to call the city ‘Victoria’. The formidable mini-queen who thought it was an excellent idea to give the city her name as a gift had a number of conceits and this is one I’m not prepared to concede.

But let’s get back on track. I was standing on the corner of a quaint, little alley, admiring a marvel of Japanese engineering in the form of a motorbike that is possibly one of the fastest machines on the road. It sat there, clicking gently as it cooled. A tiny woman approached. She was one of those mostly square, smartly dressed, venerable pillars of our society, walking with a slight left-to-right rocking motion under the burden of quite a few decades of wisdom and hard work.

As she passed by, no more than a couple of feet from where I was standing, she said, “Sabiħ!”. I knew she wasn’t referring to me. Not even my own mum can call me that and keep a straight face. But I looked at her, puzzled, wondering if I was her intended audience. I was.

She pointed at the bike again, every furrow on her face lit with child-like enthusiasm, and repeated, “Sabiħ!” I nodded in agreement, still uncertain of the mental image of this woman astride 1300cc of petrol-guzzling engine on two wheels. Contrast always wins.

Next stop was second breakfast of toast and coffee at one of the older bars there. I felt a little left out. The sun had just about risen and I wasn’t drinking whisky with the real men around me. I was terrified they’d find out I don’t watch football either and dismiss me as a device for carrying the clothes I was wearing from place to place. My concerns were unfounded. I was pulled into a conversation and made to feel like I’d been there every day since the 1930s.

Lunch was a simple affair. I bought fresh ġbejniet from Ta’ Rikardu. The man has his own goats and sheep so the little cheeses are delicious. I drove around, adding ingredients like fresh bread from a bakery I stumbled across and oil I bought at a flea market. Bit by bit my lunch was assembled and I practically ate it as I travelled. The last time I was on the lovely island I’d been conned into a pizza from Maxokk in Nadur. This will make me even more unpopular but I really don’t get the fuss about a pizza that swims in enough oil to power my humble dwelling through a Siberian winter.

My day then went awry and I skipped my second lunch, a meal I hardly ever do without. So, like the diligent hobbit, I planned my evening around two suppers – an early one to make up for the tragic omission and a later one to help me dream about food as I slept.

My first supper was at Ta’ Philip in Għajnsielem. I’d heard of the restaurant but never quite made it for a meal. This time I had the foresight to call ahead and reserve a table. Philip himself answered the phone, introducing himself first to make sure I was aware of that. He’d have a table for us if we made it there early because he was jam-packed that night. That was just what I needed to hear.

The restaurant is quite large and split into two levels. It is quite neatly done up and there’s a couple of fresh roses on each table. We were greeted by a young man who gave us plenty of attention and was polite, smart and eager to talk about the food when I made my enquiries.

We headed out thrilled to have eaten local produce

The menus are almost entirely devoted to local ingredients and show off a kitchen that’s prepared to go the extra mile towards, for instance, beef Wellington. Seasonal dishes abound and there are main courses that depend on availability like suckling pig, lamb and even a goat kid, all grown locally. The day’s specialities included enticing dishes like nettle ravioli and kusksu. If any of this tasted as good as it sounded, we were in for a properly local delight.

I was instantly sold on the kid. I don’t get to eat goat that often and the kid makes for meat that runs rings around the more commonly available suckling pig. One of my most unpopular opinions is that the cuter the animal, the tastier the meat. If you disagree, I encourage you to embark on your own journey of discovery to disprove it. Start with young rabbits and work your way up.

I looked through the rather extensive, if quite obvious, wine menu and decided I’d try an oaked Chardonnay from Gozo. It wasn’t nearly as good as it sounded but it’s well made so I have to give them that.

Minutes after we’d placed our orders, a friendly lady turned up with huge smiles and a basket of warm, fresh bread. She then laid out a bruschetta mix with chopped tomatoes, fresh herbs and capers and pointed us in the direction of a little bowl of sundried tomato paste. If I am to end my unpopular opinions for the day with my disdain for the Michelin rating, it is largely because this sort of simple pleasure is glossed over in favour of over-worked dishes in the French tradition. Eat bruschetta, you snobs and learn what life’s pleasures are actually about.

Our main course was served almost alarmingly quickly. The dishes are attractively plated, with a tasteful arrangement of mint and fresh flowers. I dug into the goat and it was absolutely delicious. The animal gives us more than Mohair and Cashmere. At this age, the meat is tender, richer than beef, and a touch gamey so there’s a vague association with venison. At Ta’ Philip it is extremely tender and shears like slow-braised lamb. You do have to work your way around the bones but the effort pays off by the shovel-load.

The baked potatoes are special. They must be baked in an open wood oven because they taste exactly like the ones my Dad dropped off at the village bakery when I was no more than a kid. The ones with a burned edge are worth fighting for, which I did.

Baked vegetables, a colourful mix of fresh pumkin, courgette, and onion, were just as homely.

The veal ossobuco was pretty decent but a far cry from the goat. I’m picky with veal, preferring the animal that’s grown in cold climates or high altitudes, and find our variety to remain a little tougher than I like it. The sauce was lovely though and my favourite part of the dish was, quite predictably, the marrow I carefully scooped out of the bone.

Less than an hour after we’d entered, we were done and too full to order from the list of desserts that included salted caramel puffs served with caramel ice cream and imqaret. As our bill was drawn up, I looked around and by now there wasn’t a single empty seat in the house. We paid just over €50 for the meal, a fair though not remarkable price to pay for a single course.

We headed out thrilled to have eaten local produce. It will be a while before I’m back on the island we should be learning from and I know I’ll be headed to Ta’ Philip for at least one of the meals. I might not be lucky to find baby goat so late in the year but that’s the fun of properly seasonal cooking and Ta’ Philip have got that right.

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