Keeping the faith
131, Old Theatre Street,
Tel: 9968 6694
Statistically, eating out in Malta is disappointing. There are more boring, poor quality, or overpriced restaurants than there are exciting, technically capable, and well-priced ones. The worst offenders manage to be awful and overpriced at the same time. So, if you are to simply look at numbers, there is little joy to be had.
I can’t put the blame entirely on the restaurant industry. I blame us – the diners. In countries where eating is considered sacred – we don’t have to travel far because Italy and France are two of these countries – the level of expectation of diners keeps restaurants on their toes. Serve a poor meal to an Italian and they will shame the restaurant into bankruptcy. This is a good thing.
We tend to put up with more. Call me a purist but I don’t expect a carbonara to be anything more than the core ingredients. Adding the famous ‘touch of cream’ or peas, or mushrooms, or any other ingredient to a carbonara is a simply a display of disrespect to the recipe. Yet, there are diners who keep ordering that stuff and paying for it so there is no incentive to raise the collective bar.
Now I’m not picky. I simply expect a promise to be fulfilled. I’m just as delighted with instant coffee and a couple of pastizzi as I am with a Michelin starred restaurant if they both deliver on their promise. I managed a table at quite a renowned (and Michelin starred) restaurant in France a few weeks ago. The food was prepared with exceptionally good ingredients and was moderately imaginative so it went down well. The wine list was sensational so I was happy to pay more for the wine than for the food, which at this level is saying something. The service mostly sucked.
I walked out feeling pretty miffed because having been rated by the venerable guide and wearing the stars like a crown implies an understanding of experience rather than simply the ability to cook. A couple of days later, back on our scorching Island, I went to Fat Louie’s and ate for a couple of hours, tasting food from across their menu in the company of one of the best people to eat with that I know. When we’d eaten enough to burst, my mind took me back to that night with the glittering stars and I realised I’d had a far better experience at Fat Louie’s and I’d also been there enough times to know they can deliver that level consistently.
The contrast helped restore my faith in our own dining circuits. Who cares about statistics when, if you go to the right places, there is good food to be eaten within a pleasant environment?
Knowing that dining can be quite hit-and-miss, however, has the result of completely flattening my expectations. I can’t walk into a restaurant expecting greatness or fearing the worst. Sometimes, however, I’m a little wary. Seeing a ‘ramen bar’ with a large menu board outside that has food from quite a spread of Asian countries makes me slightly suspicious.
I’d walked past this menu board that’s just outside an Asian restaurant in Valletta a few times. Yugto is perched just above St George’s square so it commands quite an impressive location. The place is on the first floor so it ought to be a little quieter than street level that’s now packed with tables all the way down to Old Bakery Street. Every time I walk past, I look at the menu and am half curious and half suspicious. There’s Japanese, Korean and Thai food on it. How can one be good at all three?
By the time I’d put down my chopsticks, there was a rare, satisfied smile on my face
To be perfectly reasonable, there is an overlap between Japanese and Korean. And to be even more honest, I suspect there’s more Korean influence on Japanese food than there is the other way. Japan, for all its culinary magic, borrowed its barbecue from Korea, its ramen from China, and its fried food from the West so I’m happy with a Korean chef cooking Japanese food. Thailand is a little too far for this to apply.
This week, however, I gave in. It was too hot and sticky for me to contemplate dining in the street so an air-conditioned first-floor dining area sounded tempting. Up the stairs I hopped and into the vastly more tranquil dining area at Yugto.
The place feels quite upmarket. It’s dimly lit, has a large central bar, and an assortment of decorations that go from Japan on one wall with a huge print from one of Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji to Thai relief on the other wall. Wood floors, candles, chilled music, and plenty of wood panelling complete the picture.
We were greeted by a man who was evidently running the show and he immediately saw us to a table and welcomed us to the restaurant. He offered drinks, brought menus, and in general made sure we were happily settled in. The menus contrast starkly with what the place would have you expect. They’re these rather colourful cards that cover a wide range of what could loosely be called Asian food (I say loosely because the continent is mind-bogglingly vast) that’s priced closer to what you’d expect of a cheerful take away than this lovely Valletta restaurant.
I was going to try the ramen. It is no secret that I kneel at the altar of ramen, as trite and pedestrian as this position may seem, and I do so without shame. But I could still choose a couple of starters and add a premium sake to my meal.
This was served first. I asked for it to be served cold but it is stored at room temperature. The temperature is disappointing and is a tiny oversight but the sake was pretty decent. By this time our table was decked out with cutlery, sauces, and all the little dipping bowls and small plates you’d need to get through anything on the menu. One of the sauces is the genius that sriracha mayo is. It is by all accounts a perversion and I love it. I suppose I could add it to any fried food and be happier as a result.
Our starters were served as they were prepared so they didn’t all turn up at once. This is such a smart way of doing things that most of Asia behaves this way and it paces a meal really well. The first was a bowl of zucchini fries – strips of zucchini in a tempura batter that’s quite enthusiastically salted and has its own spicy mayo to dip in. It is a surprisingly pleasant way to get nibbling and, try as I might, I couldn’t leave any in the bowl.
Next up was the spicy edamame that’s coated in a sticky sauce that’s mainly chilli and a whole lot of garlic, perhaps too much garlic for my liking but this didn’t quite stop us from working through quite a bit of it. The crispy squid is actually crisp. I didn’t expect the batter to be such a dry fry and this scored several additional points in favour. It’s served with a little bowl of sweet chilli sauce but I attacked the sriracha mayo and felt quite clever doing so. The contents of the squid bowl vanished even more quickly than the zucchini had.
The better half had ordered Thai barbecue ribs. I don’t suppose you could go wrong with barbecued ribs and these were tender, slathered generously in a lovely barbecue sauce, and served with plenty of crispy kale that somehow mimics fried seaweed. I’m not sure if this was the intended effect but if so, it is really quite a smart move. There’s also a dainty mound of fragrant white rice.
I have to admit I had very low expectations of the ramen. I’ve never quite enjoyed it outside Japan. Yugto’s ramen is quite a good facsimile of the real deal. The pork (and I suspect beef) broth is just right, there is plenty of chopped spring onion on top, and the egg is surprisingly on point. The noodle is cooked just a little beyond the point where it retains its texture and the pork chashu is more like roasted and crisp than the unbelievably tender fare that one would queue for in pouring rain but I’m being picky here. The proof of this ramen was in the slurping and I almost got through the whole bowl. By the time I’d put down my chopsticks, there was a rare, satisfied smile on my face.
The final surprise came in the form of a bill for €50. I checked if they’d forgotten to bill is for anything but it was all there and all very well-priced. Statistically, eating out in Malta is disappointing. Well done to Yugto for deftly dodging that statistic and delivering the goods with ease at a price that is more than fair.