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North meats south

The Smokehouse

136, The Strand
Gżira
Tel : 27200315

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

During the summer, I complain more. If you’ve read this column more than once you’ve figured that I complain a lot so you can imagine what I’m like in summer. To keep the moaning down, I try to escape to cooler climates for as long as I can afford to. As I write this column it is a perfect 24 degrees outside my window and there isn’t a single crane for as far as the eye can see. I’m not at home.

Food changes as one travels north. With our kitchen as a notable exception, food is usually consistent with the climate one finds oneself in. Properly Mediterranean diets are heavily based on leafy salads that contain more water than calories and this is supplemented with fish as a protein source and a small amount of rice or bread as a fuel to keep you going.

Colder climates need a bit more fat in the diet to help keep us warm. It takes little effort to use ingredients that are caught/harvested within 50 kilometres of your kitchen and stumble across the ideal components of your next meal. Anything surviving in a local climate is naturally adapted to it – animals carrying more fat and plants packing more starch – to give us the nutrition we need.

I’ve eaten in places where the temperature outside froze our words as they escaped our mouths. Depending on who you’re travelling with, this can be a good thing. Once safely indoors, the food is heavy and hearty and accompanied by the kind of alcohol that keeps fire going inside your belly. This is not to say it’s unhealthy. A balance is achieved, only it is not the kind of balance you need when on a tiny Island that’s hotter than a brothel’s reception.

The flurry of Sicilian restaurants that’s hitting our dining circuits could be teaching us a trick or two. Those that stick to their guns and serve food that they’d be happy to do at home are sticking to sane combination of portion sizes and Mediterranean dishes. Most, however, cave under the pressure of a largely unreasonable market and wind up changing their fares to suit our requests. I’ve had a restaurateur moan about the portions of pasta he’s forced to serve. He said he’d had enough of complaints from us about a pasta starter portion only serving one person. We want that dish to serve at least three. As always, we get what we deserve.

When I heard that a restaurant was being run by Estonians I was instantly enthused. That’s a welcome break, I figured. While it is not quite local to our shores, it is a tiny wave that rolls counter to the current currents. I thought it would be a lovely place to visit in winter, looking forward to a cold and stormy night on which I’d sample some properly Northern cooking.

So, on one of the hottest nights this year I dropped by. As usual, my life does not go according to plan. The place is called ‘The Smõkehouse’. I’m not quite sure how to pronounce it so I just ignored the tilde on the ‘o’. In Spanish, for instance, the little squiggle above the ‘n’ distinguishes the sound from a regular ‘n’. Think of mañana and you get the idea. While seated on their terrace I hit Wikipedia and found that the õ is a vowel used in Estonian. I then sought an IPA reader (that’s the International Phonetic Alphabet and not an India Pale Ale) and figured out what it sounds like.

They’ve managed to marry the needs of a Southern Mediterranean context with dishes they so ably make in the colder, Northern climes

I doubt they want us to pronounce it that way or that they’d refuse service if we didn’t and I like the touch – it gives them a name we can read and keeps a touch of their home in it.

The man who served us that night is friendly enough. He’s keen and he’s amiable without being fussy or formal so the approach works for this bar/meat-eatery. There’s a dining room inside that’s significantly more attractive than the terrace but it felt a little cooped up for a summer evening. Maybe I’ll try that when we’re lucky enough to have a cold and stormy night.

The first thing I did was say yes to a bottle of Estonian beer and wound up with a slightly sweet and mild-mannered lager that I can’t really imagine working in a cold climate but that does the trick in our heat. I wouldn’t go out of my way to seek out a bottle of this Imperial Gold but I enjoyed the fact that I was drinking Estonian beer in Gzira.

The better half wasn’t as hungry as I was and wasn’t having a starter. That normally means that I’d end up unwittingly sharing mine. So, I ordered the veal liver, knowing I’d eat every last morsel of it, even if I’d insisted she taste it.

Think of a large angel-on-horseback and that’s the closest I can describe these. Except that when you have angels-on-horseback at a catered event, the tiny chunk of liver inside has been cooked to rubber and the bacon is a stringy mess.

Not here. The veal liver was tender to the point of collapsing on itself and wrapped in bacon that’s cooked to the point where you can gently cut it with a knife. Three of these were served on a very hot, cast-iron dish that had cooked onion and a sauce based on white wine and the juices of the liver. I slowly cut up one of them and ate it, savouring it slowly and thinking of all things winter.

When I woke from my reverie, I realised that there was a little salad next to the cast iron dish and this included a healthy amount of raw onion. I ate plenty of this with the other two veal liver wraps. The onion adds a tart liveliness to the fatty liver and this is when the dish really comes into its own. It also places the dish firmly on the map, a few thousand kilometres north of where I was sitting. For a moment there, I was in love.

For main course I’d faced the prospect of choosing between the sirloin and the rib-eye. I was hugely tempted by the idea of a smoked turkey leg but the better half had ordered smoked pork ribs and I felt we should sample both aspects of the kitchen. I finally decided on the sirloin, opting for texture over the fatty flavour of rib-eye.

It was fabulously grilled, rare as per my request, and had that charred flavour on the outside that comes from a very high temperature grilling. We’re used to considering the texture of a fillet steak to be the ideal but it represents such a tiny part of the animal. Whenever you’re in the mood for a steak that bites back when you bite into it, go for the sirloin. It has texture, proper meat texture, and a healthy balance of flavour from a milder fat content than meat that does less work. The Smõkehouse gets this right and, while it’s not the best sirloin I’ve sunk my teeth into, it more than did the job.

The smoked ribs were just that. Smoked to a point where you have absolutely no doubt about how much time they’ve spent in contact with slowly smouldering wood. They’re tender, juicy, and just in case I didn’t make it clear, very smokey. That’s not a word, I’ll acknowledge as much, but it ought to be in this context. And just in case there wasn’t enough of it, the ribs are served with a side sauce of mildly smoked and mildly spiced barbecue sauce.

My attention, unusually when faced with all this meaty goodness, was being diverted to our sides. One bowl was packed with thinly-sliced, beautifully buttery, baked potatoes. The other with a salad of cucumber and cherry tomato, tartly dressed in a yoghurt vinaigrette and with plenty of dill for character and flavour. So this is how it’s done. Place the Mediterranean in a bowl next to the meat. Rather than use sides as an excuse to clutter the table, The Smõkehouse had given us a salad that competed with meat for flavour and enjoyment.

They’ve managed to marry the needs of a southern Mediterranean context with dishes they so ably make in the colder, northern climes. They’d done so at a price that is rather keen – we paid €60 for the meal – when we consider that we’re routinely and roundly robbed when paying for food in our own country. And while I don’t particularly enjoy sitting in what is essentially part of the inner lane of The Strand, it is still technically a seafront venue.

I’ll be back for more and will most certainly pick something that’s been smõked.

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