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Earthly delights

Noni
Republic Street,
Valletta

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

At the far end of Republic street, sandwiched between baroque flamboyance and grandeur, is this smart restaurant with a laid-back,  warm atmosphere. The staff are wonderful and the service is impeccable. We are not pelted with over-attentiveness, rather we are spoilt from afar.

In comely surroundings, we are served the perfect dinner – an unfolding of spell-binding cuisine and ridiculously fine mouthfuls of food. Brazenly displaying its wares is my steaming spaghetti di gragnano, full of al dente bite, with a generous number of moist local prawns tossed through it. Luxuriously coating every ribbon of pasta is a thick, highly-seasoned prawn bisque, a French classic, that is simply phenomenal. It is a divine distillation of the prawn. All the flavour coaxed out of every shell and prawn head forms the base of this deeply rich, gloriously creamy bisque. Noisily, we shamelessly slurp up every last mouthful and are forced to request extra napkins.

The casarecce are dripping with umami, perfectly holding a flavourful sauce that takes in all the hearty meatiness of the braised ox tail; robust and moreish. Mingling spectacularly with the gelatin-rich meat are strips of salty pancetta and a dash of tender broad beans with their semi-sweet blandness that is the perfect foil for the sauce’s intense richness.

The fine quality rabbit meat is presented two ways. There’s a saddle of rabbit and a croquette. The dish is a coming together of gorgeous ingredients, juxtaposing different flavours and textures in such a way that they are perfectly balanced.

Secured on a mound of warm spinach leaves that have been lovingly softened in butter is the magnificent ball of leg confit croquette. Biting through its crunchy fried shell reveals a  gamey, soft heart of strands of fantastic rabbit meat. What uncensored rapture!

The stuffed and roasted saddle of rabbit is succulent and fork tender. Spooned over everything is a dousing of powerful, intensely savoury gravy that is thick and glossy. The meat, roast potatoes and roast garlic puree are all dredged through this sublime jus.

On a bed of creamed cabbage and bacon comes the pork. The braised pork cheek is a dark nugget of tasty beauty; its moist, lean meat ensuring that each bite is a mouthful of meltingly soft pig flesh.

The oak smoked pork belly is equally delightful and a joy to savour - a top thick layer of crisp, sizzled fat; slightly seared and juicy; gives way to unctuously soft, tasty pig meat beneath.

Satisfying all the primal carnivorous urges lurking at the table, the côte de boeuf is tender and deeply flavoured, the product of a 48-day dry-ageing process.

Everything here is such a profound pleasure

The ripe beef spoke of an animal that had lived a happy life. With the presence of the bone retaining moisture and enhancing flavour, the côte de boeuf arrives sliced up in a splendid mound that makes for a lavish centre piece at the table. It is a pleasure to gnaw into the thickness of this juicy rib steak; silky and rare with an outside layer of crusty saltiness.

Ah, the utter meatiness of it all. Teamed with a gorgeous Béarnaise sauce, the most classic of steak sauces, and chips that have been not once, not twice but thrice cooked, this is a meat lover’s heaven.

The triple cooked chips have attained chip nirvana as far as I’m concerned. They are simultaneously the crunchiest, fluffiest, most irresistible chips I’ve ever eaten. Fingers across the table kept vying for more. 

Along with coffees, there are bijou chocolate bonbons and jelly bites to finish with. Dessert is a class act here. Bedecked in all its finery is the chocolate and orange mousse served with some lovely orange sorbet and garnished with a crumbling of fine chocolate ‘soil’. It is fiendishly good, zesty and hitting the perfect notes of bitter-sweetness.  The silken textured mousse is decadently delicious, sitting on a base of soft sponge.

Daring to dream big is my little glass of te fit-tazza – Noni’s sweet homage to a time-honoured custom with regard to savouring tea in Malta, a custom that is very much akin to the way tea is drunk in North Africa and the Middle East. 

Te fit-tazza has become an icon of Maltese tea drinking and held sacrosanct in many a local każin and pastizzeria.  Good tea requires a good cup. The nation’s favourite teaware does not feature a daintily hand-painted porcelain tea cup, but rather an impractical, handle-less glass that painfully scalds the fingers when filled with hot tea.

A glass of cold condensed milk mousse infused with the warmth and strong flavours of black tea is served. It is the colour of milky tea.

At the table it is topped with a lighter-than-air lemon froth that has been whipped to a weightless consistency and oozes with sweetness and the fragrance of citrus. It quite literally melts off the tip of the tongue and marries itself superbly with the black tea and condensed milk mousse. This little glass of loveliness is Noni’s rendering of a humble Maltese cup of tea, reinvented and reinterpreted.

And reinterpretation is precisely what is going on here. The entire menu is an emphatic elevation of Maltese and Mediterranean dishes, realised with all the French finesse of a classically trained Maltese chef – a chef whose nickname, incidentally, is Noni. 

Everything here is such a profound pleasure. Every detail counts, nothing is overlooked. There is such beauty, such sublime satisfaction, such depth of meaning in every element of each multidimensional plate of food. This is food to be celebrated, to be savoured slowly and in good company. It is food that is just fabulous to eat.

At Noni we had been exposed to exceptional, accomplished cooking that was never overworked and never overly intricate. After heavily overeating and un­abashedly polishing off anything and everything in sight, I am not apologetic in the slightest. At length we reluctantly take our leave; wistful already of the meal we have just eaten.

Noni, you are my new obsession.

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