Mona's Meals| Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Young Man and the Sea

Watching other people grabbing stuff off supermarket shelves, checking to see how low in fat, shiny and fresh-looking it is, I sometimes wonder where our modern obsession with dates and cleanliness will lead us to. Or has led us to already. By necessity, supermarkets put shelf-life at the forefront of their stock choices, and in so doing, in pleasing us, they are killing us. Or rather, we are killing ourselves, but only after we suffer a crap quality of life in the shape of inexplicable disease, for a very long time.
This week I had no time to go to Zammeats, so on the way home from work I dashed into a massive southern supermarket which stocks more soap than it does ingredients for soup. A new ‘butcher’ – read ‘huge meat processor’ – has taken over, and apart from discontinuing his predecessor’s corn-fed chicken, he has also stacked the sides of the ‘fresh’ counter with chicken nuggets and breaded items.
On the left and the right of the counter, served by a human being in white, are rows upon rows of bright pink flesh – every single bit of pork, beef and chicken is there, luring us with their ‘you’re harried, you’re hassled, you need something to cook, quick come hither’ temptation. People were ignoring the human being on the other side of the counter, once known as a ‘butcher’, and piling bits of ready-wrapped meat into their trolleys. And then we wonder why the split bin in our kitchen, ready to help us recycle like a faithful assistant, has bigger sections for plastic and paper than it does for leftover bits of food.
When I was a child, and even later, our local suq had its very own Ċali tat-tiġieġ. He decapitated chickens and skinned rabbits on the spot and was a living example of salvaġizmu. Yet we ate well and the meat was always fresh. Although for us children it was a shock to witness such rampant, merciless murder, it also taught us where our food came from.
Nowadays, ask a child, natch a teen, where a burger emanates from, and you will wait an eternity for an answer. Our disconnection from the earth is complete. A friend of mine, who now lives in a country where hanging decapitated goats and camels in the market is the order of the day (and improves flavour no end), would only want processed meats – burgers, nuggets and our friend the Gordon Blue – when she came over. ‘Why?’ I used to cry, harassed no end and having none of the offending items in my freezer. ‘Because it doesn’t feel like an animal, does it?’ she’d reply with the calm of grazing sheep. ‘In this format, I don’t have to think about it’.
Marvin, the guy who owns and runs Tarragon, is a man of the sea. He fishes and is in the habit of catching himself and others supper after a hard day’s night. No wonder he has a smile pasted on his face at all times. Marvin is a very friendly and enthusiastic guy and this leads to many thinking he has an overbearing nature, especially those who, unlike me, do not have the cheek to tell him that the they’d prefer it if they had dinner with just their chosen companions.
Marvin’s habit was verging on the karmenitis, a disease which has its victims sitting at patrons’ tables and chatting inanely, sometimes strolling over with a glass of wine and intruding into their conversations. In extreme cases, sufferers have been known to swear at paying patrons in the vernacular, ask them if they’re Muslim when they don’t feel like wine, and generally fling insults at them thinking they’re being witty.
Marvin’s diagnosis had him reacting pretty quickly and these days, he’s a little more laid back. To me, he also seems sharp enough to realise that when a gaggle of middle-aged women is making huge eyes at you from across the room, then you give them the appropriate attention. Ditto the huge amount of gay men who patronise Tarragon: I for one know of at least four who have developed semi-obsessions with him over the past year. Laydees, you know who you are.
Tarragon’s menu reads like a dream and over the past two years, the owner has focused on introducing a certain attention to detail which is sadly lacking elsewhere. The menu’s cover is now made out of leather and wood, the wine-list hand-painted by a local artist and written by that wine genius called Hubert at Paolo Bonnici. Both are so amazingly exciting – and I say this without a single bit of tongue anywhere near my cheek – that after we placed our orders, we kept them just as reading material and wondered what it would have been like if we had ordered other items.
We had a salmon and monkfish carpaccio, comfortably slicked in a judicious marinade of sparkling flavours: just a tad of chilli, a squeeze of lime and fruity olive oil We had a ‘spring roll’ made with the trimmings of Aberdeen Angus beef, drizzled with a calmly sweet yet pinch-faced sour, sauce.
The calamari seemed to have been plucked straight from the sea. TW grumbled that he would have preferred more seasoning, yet admitted that maybe it was right to let the main ingredient do the talking. I thought the execution was sublime: a savage grilling and big bits of black pepper.
We had what Chef calls a ‘carpaccio’ of clams, but which was really the molluscs in their completely raw form. TW ate them, slurping up the salty juice. I never in my life thought I’d see him do this, considering that the closest he ever got to anything similar was oysters, which he describes as ‘trying to swallow spit’. The scallops were also spot on, seared with a slap of heat on the outside and left practically raw and tit-wobbly on the inside.
Tarragon brought out the gluttons in both of us. We were dribbling over the descriptions of the pasta, especially the trio of tortellacci and practically everything else. On average, the high-calibre, restaurant-made exemplars cost less than €9. I find this extremely fair, especially considering that most crappy pasta places are charging more for low-quality copies.
There was no time to mourn our choices: TW had opted for the Aberdeen Angus, a grass-fed piece of fillet and another of rib-eye, and it’s safe to say that Marvin, along with Kevin Bonello of the Xara Palace and Claude Camilleri of Palazzo Santa Rosa is one of those Chefs who knows how to treat meat correctly, applying the exact amount and gradient of heat, and choosing his raw ingredients with knowledge and respect.
I had the sole. Not only is it extremely difficult to find this on local menus or fresh fish displays, it is even rarer for the staff in the kitchen to know what to do with it. I had just had a sole meunière at Jacques Cagna’s Espadon Bleu in Paris which was so wondrous I really wished TW were with me to share the moment.
I mentioned this to Marvin but he refused to replicate it. ‘Leave it to me and my olive oil’ he said. Treated with a light hand in his kitchen, the sole was a revelation of soft, white tenderness. The accompanying steamed and oiled vegetables were all of good quality but we were too busy digging into the roast potatoes to touch more than the obligatory top layer.
Marvin has come a long way from the silly and easy-way-out Baci cake of old, which I felt dragged down the level of his restaurant. His dessert list is still homely, so TW felt perfectly justified in having the courgette cake. This was texture perfect and came, as it should, with layers of sweetened cream cheese.
I had the selection of sorbets: raspberry, kiwi and lemon. My banoffee pie was as good as the one I make at home, and that – and yes I brag – is the best kind of homeliness there could be: genuine, gooey and with enough sugar in its cooked condensed milk, bananas and flakes of chocolate to send you straight to diabetes hell.
What distinguishes Tarragon from any other restaurant in its price range is the passion of its owner for genuine produce, the beautiful, yet very relaxed set-up, and its top-notch unpretentious food. It’s going straight into’s top five. And about time too

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