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Practically perfect

Hammett’s MaĊina Restaurant
Senglea

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

Everything is gorgeous here. Even our waiter.

We enjoy aperitifs on the terrace, taking in the Vittoriosa skyline. We are at the very heart of the Three Cities, in the heart of Maċina, formerly the site where large cranes once hoisted up the masts and cargo of ships.

Now reopened as a luxury boutique hotel, we are witnessing the rebirth of this historic landmark. Hammett’s Restaurant lives with­in its bastion-like walls.

There is soft, soothing jazz playing inside. It’s a siren call to enter...

The polished exterior leads us in to the equally achingly polished interior – the chic dining room an elegant wash of subdued lighting, marble-topped tables and plush velvet seating; utter grace softly veiling the place. 

The menu is an unorthodox, diverting delight of small portion dishes. It lists some beautiful things. We choose to ignore the set degustation menu and are encouraged to sample three to four plates each, thus creating a tasting menu of our own. There is, however, a ‘traditional mains’ section offering one single big-boned dish, a substantial portion for those refusing to play the tasting game.

I madly attack any scallop with abandon. Buttery and naturally sweet, my lightly seared scallops are perfectly cooked with a melt-in-the-mouth texture; unctuously moist with a gelatinous mouth feel. They sit on a bed of crisp roasted asparagus that has been cooked until just tender and pairs beautifully with the shellfish.

A final flourish of lumpfish roe crowns the scallops, fine and crisp; firm beads exploding with a distinct saltiness that complements the delicate, subtle flavour of the scallops. The roe lacks the explosive intensity of genuine caviar but is seductive nonetheless.

A beautifully presented dish of sea bream ceviche is what I taste next. I am a convert to Latin American ceviche. This one is all flavour and lightness.

The raw fish is fantastic, having been marinated and cured in citrus juice and spices and tossed with sweet cubes of compressed mango and cucumber.

This is a fish that can well withstand the acid onslaught. Garnished with a frothy yoghurt mousse that is seasoned with salt flakes and mint, it is a stunning dish. Ooh, the mouth-tingling freshness of it all.

The tagliolini sound irresistibly good with a sauce of marinated white prawns bathed in lemon sage butter, shreds of zucchini tossed through the ribbons of pasta. Who wouldn’t want to eat that?

Accomplished cooking and a sophisticated cuisine, executed to high standards and presented beautifully

Sadly, the dish lacks spirit. The tagliolini are not perfectly al dente and the flavours are decidedly underwhelming. The sauce proves to be grossly underseasoned, bordering on the bland, and incredibly oily – to the extent that a greasy broth collects in a deep puddle at the base of the bowl, and oil streams down my chin every time I take a forkful.

The saffron risotto is reasonably good. The rice is well cooked with a creamy, silky sumptuousness to it; vividly coloured by the Spanish saffron harvested in Mancha. Softened baby spinach leaves have been folded through.

There is an added injection of richness from the Bleu d’Auvergne that has been crumbled on top. It’s a blue that is intense; creamy in texture and rustic in flavour.

In spite of this, the overall result is a soulless plate of food that is heavily underseasoned and weighs heavily on the stomach.

Nevertheless, there are treasures to be found here. The treatment of the meat is exquisite, truly spectacular. Rich and luxurious, flawlessly realised, the tender lamb rump is ravishing, played against the smooth, deep smokiness of the excellent baba ganoush and chewy textured Israeli cous cous. 

It’s a celebration of lamb and of the aubergine. Devastatingly divine is the duck leg confit. Having been slow cooked in its own fat, the meat is velvety and buttery and falls off the bone effortlessly; its golden brown skin is crisped and salty.

It’s an exceedingly elegant plate of food. Gracing the plate are some marvellous rosemary balsamic peaches; ripe, sweet and syrupy, brimming with caramel tones; and a glossy, joyous calvados jus that complements the meat beautifully. It’s a shame that it was used so sparingly. 

From the ‘traditional mains’ corner of the menu comes a gorgeously marbled beef ribeye, carmine within. Meltingly tender and flavourful, it is piled with sautéed mushrooms and draped in an exquisite café de Paris butter – a complex butter sauce enhanced with anchovies and numerous herbs and spices, crea­ted in the 1940s at Geneva’s charming Café de Paris.

We have sides of potato latke and carrots. The latke are dense and flavourful with the crispiest of crusts. We shove these hot potato pancakes into our mouths.

The roasted carrots are almost candy-like, the za’atar bringing warmth and a hint of piquancy – the warm, woody earthiness of this ancient Middle Eastern spice blend coming through but never overwhelming the natural sweetness of the carrots.

Afterwards, there’s a lush, velvety textured prickly pear sorbet; its pulpy flesh crushed into a wonderful, refreshingly light dessert that is not overly sweet and quite perfect.

The food presentation up to this point has been flawless. The crushed lemon pie brings this crashing down. The dessert is a bit of cleverness I can live without. Micro green-flourished, it is not so much crushed as totally deconstructed.

The thick lemon curd is mouth-wateringly zesty but presented as an unsightly, snake-like squiggle that runs down the length of the plate.

Neatly piped rows of soft, scorched meringue kisses fill the plate; sugary, airy mounds of sweetness. The basil ice cream has an agreeable cooling effect on the tongue, which contrasts harshly  with the glassy globules of palate-prickling lemon gel that dot the plate and are unpleasantly sharp.

Notwithstanding the specks of vanilla crumble, the dessert sorely lacks textural contrast. Furthermore, it has been deconstructed to the point that it has lost all meaning. It has no context, no backbone.

For the most part, Hammett’s Maċina Restaurant represents accomplished cooking and a sophisticated cuisine, executed to high standards and presented beautifully. Not everything is perfect though. As it stands, certain dishes are not yet quite as refined as the stunning surroundings.

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