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The hidden gem

Cru
16, St Lucy Street,
Valletta
Tel: 7946 1576

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

This country and I have an awkward relationship. Every time I hate on it, it does something to remind me that there’s plenty to love about it and it reels me right back in.

Every morning, the country and I get up to a terrible start. The place I live in is loud and densely packed with construction sites. Then I have to drive. As I do, I curse my compatriots for their inability to perform a task as simple as guiding a ton and a half of vehicle in the right direction while following a simple set of rules.

Expecting anyone to be considerate while driving is a stretch, and yet I keep hoping I’ll see a shred of human behaviour. I remember the last time I did. It was a few years ago and the guy showing considerate behaviour happened to be someone I know to be an exceptional human being so it really doesn’t count.

Then I’m at the office, riled by the arduous journey, and I sit with a motely bunch of bright millennials who, by being themselves, restore my faith in the place. If this group of right-brained kids are the leaders of tomorrow, there is hope.

Unfortunately, however, they are exceptional because they are well-travelled, creative, and open-minded people. By and large, we consider a proper education to be far too expensive so we typically get away with the very bare minimum. Rather than educating an entire person we train a very small part of them - the left side of their brain.

As a result of this focus on utilitarian nonsense we create a parade of monkeys with a very narrowly developed spectrum of ability and intelligence who grow up and become leaders, perpetuating this nonsensical system.

Consider the way we tackled Valletta when preparing it for its brief moment in the spotlight. We broke it down into little tasks, handing these over to mostly competent people. Some of them applied very clever thinking to very smart projects. Others worked on more enduring works that will grace the city for decades to come. Yet others behaved like monkeys and made a mess they were proud to parade. Oh well.

Somehow, by our usual combination of bumbling enthusiasm and sheer luck, the result is mostly positive.

I spent a day in the City with a rather well-educated man from beyond our shores. He arrived equipped with armfuls of knowledge about our history and about Valletta. We dashed around the city and, together, marvelled at how densely it is packed with historical, cultural, and architectural treasures.

There was one bit of information he’d got wrong. He dragged me to the covered market to see the basement floor. He’d been told that it had been turned into a traditional food market. I waited outside. I’d been there before. When he emerged, no more than five minutes later, the poor man was uncharacteristically speechless. He tried to articulate his disappointment with a series of, “It’s, well, like, uh…”. “A supermarket in drag?”, I volunteered. “Exactly”, quoth he.

By now it was that perfect time for a very late second lunch or a pre-dinner snack so we wound down St Lucy street and sat on little wooden stools outside a tiny place simply called ‘Cru’. I was itching for bubbly so we had a glass of prosecco each, ably aided in making our choice by a supremely knowledgeable Italian man.

Then the chef walked out to see what we felt like eating. The young lady seemed to read our minds. We ate this delightful little stew of sausage and beans and a salad the likes of which I haven’t seen for a long time. Chunks of marinated mackerel, done only as a result of the acid in the marinade rather than being ruined by heat, lay atop this bouncy castle of fresh leaves that had been perfumed with coriander flower. I didn’t think I could be so deeply smitten by a salad but I was.

The next time I was in Valletta at around the same time, I received that most beautiful of calls asking what I was doing for dinner. I spun things my way, causing three people to head into Valletta rather than driving out myself. I wanted more of what Cru had in store and my description of the place was convincing enough.

I went early. Even though Cru has a few tables inside, I just love sitting on those steps so I wanted to snag one of the tiny tables. If I was lucky enough to be born in a country that has a jewel for capital city, then I’m drinking up every opportunity to enjoy it.

Charming service, a surprisingly quiet location just off the main Valletta thoroughfares, and a kitchen I plan to return to at the next opportunity

I sat and started with a wonderful craft beer by what I gathered to be a rather small local brewery. It was an unfiltered Belgian saison that’s relatively light and fruit-driven. It’s steeply priced at €7 a bottle but this partly reflects the cost of brewing tiny batches.

Presently, I was joined by the rest of the party and spoke to the chef about having something to eat while we sat and sipped some wine. Apart from one allergen that proved to be completely absent in the kitchen and one preference for a wheat-free diet, we were all prepared for whatever she felt like feeding us and left the selection of food to her.

Considering the diminutive size of the table, she suggested serving two dishes at a time. I had a look at the wine menu and it is compact but cleverly laid out and very carefully curated. I didn’t get to pick the first wine but did pick the second bottle so I can only take the blame for half the lovely liquids we consumed that night.

We started quite simply with roasted pecan nuts and a bowl of black and green olives dressed with olive oil. They’re fleshy, hardly salted, and artfully de-bittered, so the flavour difference of the two species is allowed to press through.

Next up was a burrata, fig, and caramelised walnut salad and a smoked mackerel pâté served with toasted, sourdough bread. This little spread is all that living in the Mediterranean is about. Figs are bountiful right now and mackerel is sustainably fished so having this combination speaks volumes about a kitchen that’s as concerned with fantastic combinations of flavour as it is about serving food that’s local and in season.

The bread, usually relegated to a supporting act, is as much of a remarkable ingredient as the rest of the food. It is a sourdough bake and uses a natural flour for an artisanal texture that’s mildly aerated and just the right kind of crumbly. The characteristic sourdough taste, with its slightly acidic structure, makes it an excellent vehicle for unctuous additions like the smoky, oil-driven, mackerel pâté.

More of the divine bread followed with an excellent gammon terrine that packed pistachio and cranberry for crunch and flavour. This was served alongside a dish of bresaola and rucola, possibly the least expected dish of the evening. I’m not complaining but it is not the dish that would have me return to Cru for more, showing how spoiled we’d been so far.

The final round packed a double punch. Sardine fillets were served on sourdough toast and these had a pleasant chili kick to keep the fishy dish interesting after the last bite had gone down the hatch. The finale came in the form of a cooked foie gras served with a little pot of strawberry and vanilla jam. It’s hard for me to think of a combination that works as well as a properly prepared foie gras on sourdough bread alongside a sweet and tart fruit preparation and I did all I could to resist ordering a bottle of sweet white to finish things off.

But I ruefully realised I’d have to work the next day and asked for the bill. We paid €35 each, a very fair price for food that involved so much thought, passion, and artful preparation as well as our choice of mid-range priced wines. Considering the wine list, it is entirely possible to spend more and drink more precious liquids and that’s the beauty of a place like Cru – the limit is entirely up to you. What it offers as standard is charming service, a surprisingly quiet location just off the main Valletta thoroughfares, and a kitchen I plan to return to at the next opportunity.

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