All of the effort
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All of the effort

Panorama Restaurant
British Hotel
St Ursula Street
Valletta
Tel: 2122 4730

Food: 6/10
Service: 6/10
Ambience: 7/10
Value: 4/10
Overall: 6/10

A man wiser than myself said that all the effort in the world won’t matter unless you’re inspired. The man is wonderfully nuts if his writing is anything to go by. Chuck Palahniuk hit us with Fight Club, creeped us out with Choke, and in general had us scratching our heads with oddities such as Pygmy. In every case, whether you love or hate (the latter being more likely) his novels, they are nothing if not deeply inspired.

The way he teases stories from everyday life and weaves them into his wonderfully weird narrative shows that he is inspired by absolutely everything and everyone around him. He has an unusual approach.

He tells a fragment of a story to an unsuspecting human he’s encountered at a party, at the gym, or while out walking, for instance. If the story is good enough, his prey is not left speechless. A good enough story will prompt someone to recount a story from their own lives, spilling truth that’s inspired by fiction.

These truths, often exposing a deep vulnerability, eventually make it into a Chuck Palahniuk novel, sufficiently disguised and taken in a totally different context, to allow its humanity without disclosing the source.

And as a species that is only distinguished from apes by our ability to tell each other stories, I consider this significant to more than a controversial novel. Every aspect of our lives is enriched by inspiration, made more significant by a good story, and rewarded by the ability of others to relate to our experiences.

The top restaurateurs are also great at telling their story. Their restaurant wait-lists span months for more than the food on the plates they serve. We wait and dream and travel because there’s an experience at the other end, an experience that is greater than the sum total of the food we’ve eaten and the wine we’ve sipped.

Massimo Bottura, of Osteria Francescana fame, speaks like he is simultaneously a conduit of nature’s bounty, an orchestra conductor and sometimes a chef. By his account, his actions verge on the heroic and his work so far is the loom upon which great tapestries are woven. He is inspired and he inspires those around him, starting with his team and rubbing off onto every patron.

I don’t expect this level of inspiration to be present at every restaurant I visit. But I do love it when I find a burning fervour that seeps through into the most humble of dishes and, luckily, there are plenty of such instances around. One does not need to spend a fortune or even travel beyond our shores to encounter chefs and restaurateurs who are burning with excitement about the food they’re serving and their plans for the next dish. You know it when you encounter it and you walk away enriched and fed well.

I had high hopes for the restaurant called The Panorama that’s inside the British Hotel in Valletta. The view from the terrace is simply stunning and the restaurant has been completely redone so I couldn’t wait for an opportunity to sample the food. I secured a table one weekend and built up eager anticipation.

One enters from St Ursula street and, I imagine, it is also possible to access the restaurant from the hotel entrance on Battery street. The place is tidy and smartly done up. Well, mostly. Judging by the prices I spotted on the menu outside I was dismayed to see bare, wooden tables, those rubbish faux-leather place mats you’d get at a cheap hotel restaurant, and paper napkins.

It needs a sprinkle of magic, a healthy dose of imagination and inspiration

The view from the terrace is, as I’ve mentioned, quite impressive. You’re looking across the Grand Harbour and at the majesty of the three cities. It is a pity that they’ve chosen regular glass for the doors that separate the dining area from the balcony so you’re basically staring at your own reflection instead of the view unless you’re outside. And if you look anything like I do, this isn’t a pretty sight.

A young lady brought us menus and took our order for a bottle of water before leaving us to choose our meals. Sometimes, and this doesn’t happen often, I look at a menu and am hesitant to pick a couple of dishes. There was nothing on the menu that leaped at me as particularly inspired or unusual.

Swordfish carpaccio, toasted ciabatta at an eye-watering €10, and veal carpaccio for €15 are there with the starters. The menu goes on to a couple of soups, some pasta dishes, and the usual meat and fish dishes. In a place with such a sumptuous view and spectacular location I was hoping for an inspired menu. This was not forthcoming.

We were told that the soup of the day was a carrot and ginger soup with a hint of chilli and that there was meagre (meagre) as the day’s catch. Eventually, we chose the food and picked an inexpensive French red to go with it.

The girl who was serving us was polite enough but there is that language barrier that inevitably comes across as a little dour. Her colleague was Maltese however, and knew very little about the food. She sat the only other couple who shared the restaurant with us that night at the table right next to ours and managed to get as far as ‘carrot’ when describing the soup of the day. One ingredient out of three is a little sparse.

Soon we were presented with an amuse bouche. Described cryptically as “asparagus”, this was a shot glass filled with a slightly watery asparagus soup. My bouche was mildly amusée.

Next up was some freshly baked Maltese bread and a beauty of an organic olive oil. The chef that gets the importance of good, fresh bread and excellent oil or butter is a smart one and this helped place me in a more optimistic mood.

Our starters were served quite quickly. The soup, a rather large portion of creamy carrot soup with a pleasant ginger kick and a very distant trace of chilli was quite pleasant. It’s presented very simply and just about does the trick.

My pasta was a very well-executed Sorrentina, with grilled aubergine, a tomato sauce, and tiny dollop of stracciatella cheese on top. It was perfectly serviceable but nowhere near a €14 plate of pasta. It’s the type of dish I’d relish at a workman’s eatery in Italy for a fiver that would also buy me a coffee.

Our main course was, once again, served with impeccable timing. The better half had, at a loss for options, picked the veal Milanese. The staple from Milan is a breaded veal cutlet that’s fried in butter and the one served is just that, with a pretty decent slice of veal inside.

The sides are more interesting. The roast veg is buttery and lively, cooked to retain the texture of the vegetables so it’s crunchy and full of flavour. The double-cooked chips are a treat and the roast potato even more buttery than the veg and, I suspect, double cooked. It’s a little unfair when the sides steal the show but then no one orders a Milanese and expects to waltz out singing its praises.

My pistachio-crusted lamb was pretty on point, if a little boring. The half French rack was actually crusted and cooked to medium, not far from the medium-rare I’d ordered. The fillet was cooked a little more because it is a very slim sliver of meat and there was none of the panko crust that the menu described. On the side was a little pot of sweet, port-based sauce. It was a pleasant dish but not the kind I’ll remember and hurry back for.

When one pays over €100 for a meal, there has to be something going for it. The view is lovely – that is actually hard to beat. But a view alone is not enough. The food is well-prepared but that’s not enough either.

Which is a pity really, because plenty of effort has been made to reach this level. It is a bit like someone built a restaurant to a formula, ticking all the boxes and getting them all right. Now it needs a sprinkle of magic, a healthy dose of imagination and inspiration, and the view that the Panorama commands will have the restaurant it actually deserves.

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