MONA'S MEALS | Sunday, 16 December 2007

Can someone please cook me something for once?

The Foodbook has changed my life. Ok, maybe I exaggerate a little for effect, which is certainly nothing new. What it has really changed though, is my attitude to cooking and eating. Especially to eating out. In a very ironic way.
You may think I’m about to embark on some grumpy-old-woman verbal hurl about how I can’t find low-carb desserts when I eat out. Although it wouldn’t break restaurateurs’ backs if they got off their potato-laden bums (there’s an anatomical confusion if ever there was one) and bought a copy of the book so they can suss out what low-carb is about, I don’t expect the world to change on my behalf, so I won’t do that.
Yet over the past weeks, and at that inappropriate time of year when restaurants come with an I-really-don’t-want-that festive menu, I’ve been craving somebody else doing my cooking, and serving it, and stashing the smeared plates into a hidden dishwasher somewhere where I can’t see them. I don’t even mind paying. That’s how generous I am.
Any recipe book publicity comes with a price. Since I’m not Nigella, with a massive team of testers, cooks and bra-makers, I’ve been personally entertaining journalists non-stop. In some cases, sickeningly enough, I’ve had to cook and ‘vanish’ because the publicity was in a ‘competing’ paper, the concept of which I find ludicrous in an island as small as ours. This ludicrousness means cooking transportable and re-heatable food, chugging along to My Book Publisher and the Book Marketeer’s luscious apartment, serving it, watch others enjoy it, then chugging back home.
On other occasions, the journos turned up at our house. They’re my friends, so at least, I enjoyed the company. My gripe is that I have to cook them something from the book. Usually, I love experimenting, trying out different recipes, and dipping into my favourite food writers like Locatelli. I love having TW compete with me, even though he tends not to play fair. Obviously, here, this was not an option. The book is called Mona’s Meals: The Foodbook, not TW’s Kofta Delight.
So I’ve been all over the place in the past few weeks. When I can, I stick to my favourite restaurants. Although I am now the happy bearer of the title ‘Food Writer’, waiting patiently for my own OBE or at least a Gieh ir-Repubblika, and for the millions to start rolling in JK Rowling-style, I remain, for my sins, a restaurant critic. For the first time in ages, I actually started to enjoy the eating out process. I don’t get to cook, I don’t have to clear up, and I have great company in the form of MBP, BM and TW. Sometimes, Mia the rottweiler comes along too.
Thanks to the BM, who eschews meat but loves fish, we ended up at Zen. Not in a state of zen, although we were truly reeling from the fabulous amount of sales of The Foodbook on the first two weeks and the messages of ‘congratulations’ gushing in, but the restaurant at Portomaso.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Portomaso is one of those places that really should be fabulous – stunning organisation, good layout, nice choice – but ends up letting us down too many times in the food stakes. Zen doesn’t.
Style-wise, it hits a few of the right spots. On a food level though, TW had absolutely no intention of eating raw fish, for no apparent reason except that he likes to make a point every now and then. ‘I’ll book you the Teppan-yaki table’ I promised. I did. When we turned up, there were a couple with their children on one side of the bandannaed performing chef, and another sort of loved-up couple on the other. We were meant to slot in the middle.
Teppan-yaki is not Japanese at all: it’s an American invention profusely splattered worldwide for Westerners. Wusses like TW, for example. ‘Do you want to sit there, in between these people we don’t know, just so you confirm that the life in your fish has been spent?’ I hissed. ‘No’, he replied, never a man of many words when they have to be uttered out loud.
So off we went to another table in the real restaurant. This turned out to be a joy, especially helped in the happiness stakes by our server, a gorgeous young woman of much enthusiasm and knowledge. I don’t know if she was Japanese, but her face professed that she did come from that very large side of the world. Nobody else sat with us.
The Teppan-yaki menu is available for mere mortals sitting at the normal tables. In fact, it’s very good value for money, as befits the hoi polloi. So TW’s white fish Teppan-yaki included a miso soup (warming, pungent, salty just in case you were wondering), an ‘appetizer’ of cooked, chopped bits of fresh tuna, vegetables and dessert, apart from his real main. For Lm7.95, that’s stunning value for money.
If it comes to that, though, Zen should not be on your radar. Everything else is small and expensive, as befits the land of the rising sun. For that, however, you will also get a hilarious introduction in your menu which advises you on ‘how to eat in Japanese traditional way’. Good thing they told us: TW’s deep fried chicken turned up before anybody else’s food and we thought it was a pre-starter and dug into it.
The Zen people don’t mince their words: ‘basically we don’t wait for someone who has not been served food yet, because the first served food will be cool and be poor taste’. We didn’t realise this, and MBP had to point it out and hunt a menu to prove it wasn’t just the sake talking. Meanwhile, TW ended up having to share his starter and was also privy to my amazing knowledge. ‘It’s fish and fabulous’ I told everyone, erroneously. See? Even I’m not perfect. Poor BM: I could see she wanted to spit it out. I had unwittingly made her eat a legged animal.
This menu introduction is quite helpful though. I always thought that sushi was eaten with chopsticks and wondered if it was just my clumsy handling which made the rice break up. It isn’t: you should grab the whole form with your fingers. Of course, I will not use these pages to give you a lesson in Japanese food. I will, though, harp on about how simply wonderful this exemplar was.
My sashimi starter was luscious. Raw fish needs to be super fresh, slicked with its own juices and fat, and cut by a master. This was. BM and MBP dug into their zen and negi-toro rolls (rolls are American too, or did I say I wasn’t going to launch into a lesson?). Food was turning up left and right, in no discernible order. The seafood tempura was amazing, with super-light beer batter enclosing the soft pieces like a huggy yummy mummy picking up her baby. The chat was flowing from one side of the table to the other. In fact, it is very possible we’ve found the perfect dinner companions and must start working on the next book in order to keep this going.
At Lm7.95, you can’t call our choice cheap, especially since the portions are quite small. In order to make up a main course I had to order a fresh green salad at Lm2.40 to accompany. MBP had noodles. BM is rigorously sticking to low carb.
We had two desserts called Otome’s Heart. Otome is a Manga character. I have no idea what a Manga heart tastes like but this seemed to be based on soya-bean curd.
Zen is a little food adventure, a trip into the semi-unknown and a step closer to international discovery. I am positive an experience in Kyoto would have been very different, but as far as a comfortable, well-serviced and fun night out was concerned it hit the right spots.
It loses a star on two counts: like many other Portomaso outlets, you only get a 2 hour parking voucher, which is simply mean. When you’ve paid almost Lm70 in food, you don’t want to have to stop and pay another Lm1 on your way out. You don’t want to watch staff changing into civilian clothes and count their night’s takings either, which they did when we were there. We wanted to live the Sake and Kirin-drenched dream for a little bit more; from being surrounded with girls in gorgeous kimonos and guys in bandannas, we departed to the scene of Levi’s and Miss 60 shoots. Nobody even bothered to see us out.
Overall though, I would so return. MBP and BM are currently abroad, getting over the exhaustion of working with me. They will return too. I hope. I already miss having someone to stress out.

Mona’s Meals: The Foodbook by Mona Farrugia, Alex Manche and Joe Vella is available from all bookshops, lifestyle stores and


The Doc talks investment

A wise friend periodically warns me that for every 1% above the going interest rate I can expect a 10% risk on my capital. Knowing my staid character I always shy away from risk and go for the lower rates. However, this rule finds exception in a particular investment where one can go for a no-risk, 300% guaranteed yield in a very short time.
Your ears may be burning for the financial tip of the decade. It’s easy and all around you: restaurant wine! Let’s examine the basic facts. A cheap, bottom-of-the-class wine you may pick up from the supermarket for less than Lm1 is sold for Lm3 in many restaurants. The majority of middle of the range local wines, retailing at approximately Lm1.50 on the shelves go for Lm4.50, and a good wine sold in a liquor store for Lm3.50 can go for anything from Lm7 to Lm9. Profitable? Downright robbery if you ask me.
It is amazing what one discovers, browsing through various discount stores. I have also learned that the wine distributor has little say in what the customer ultimately pays with his meal. Sadly the middleman is swallowing all the profits to the detriment of the winery and the client. The distributor also provides refrigeration facilities gratis and replaces any bottles the customer disliked, removing any risk for the restaurateur.
Happily a restaurant has appeared in the south of our sunny island that charges Lm2 for corkage, on a bring-your-own deal. This fee may sound rather steep, but if you took a nice Barolo (as I did recently) you could easily realise your investment. Let’s hope many more restaurants will offer us this facility.
So, next time a bond is issued, forget it. Open a restaurant, or better still, go for the jugular, and start a wine bar, and all you touch will turn into gold.


From the Funs Group

Went to Blue Room (Valletta) recently and it really bothered me to find the prices on the notice board outside more expensive than the prices on the menus inside. And I’m not talking about a 5c or 10c difference, but a minimum of 25c. Apparently they did this so that the Euro pricing of the food will be rounded up come January.
Incidentally, do we order The Foodbook online or is it available in Gozo?

Josepha Xuereb

Mona says:

Hi Josepha,
You can do both. I know Merlin rushed up to Gozo to deliver because the Gozitans were all out to get their mitts on a copy. Is it possibly sold out there already?

Someone just told me that Venus in Bugibba is good – is it possible there’s something good in that hellhole?

Andrew Borg Cardona

I guess it’s possible: my favourite Chinese restaurant China White is there so you never know. But I don’t blame you for being suspicious.

Audrey Jones

Mona says:

If a good restaurant comes out of Bugibba, I’ll eat my shoes. If they’re not too expensive (I don’t have cheap shoes).

From the group ‘The Funs of Mona’s Meals’ on Facebook


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