Mona's Meals | Sunday, 07 December 2008

Full house

I was in London last week and it was absolutely buzzing with news. There was the terrorist attack in India which was all over the press and television. Alarmingly, on my way back, the local papers had absolutely nothing to say about it which made me feel as if we Maltese live in some kind of parallel universe which operates on delayed action, like a clapped-out car in the cold.
Gordon Ramsey has apparently been having a 7-year affair with Sarah Symonds; the News of the World called the revelations ‘Cheat and Two Veg’. Then there was the budget. Alistair Darling, took what the papers termed a ‘massive gamble’ with the UK and borrowed one trillion pounds to tide the country over through the recession.
At restaurants, normally understated Brits could not stop themselves from discussing, very loudly, Britain’s financial state of affairs. For some reason, in my head, a lira (I’m still calculating in them) is equivalent to 65c. ‘Which world have you been living in?’ said my banker mum on my return. ‘It’s much closer to a euro’s worth’. In fact, it was 84c. Soon, the pound will be the equivalent of the Zimbabwean dollar and Darling will have to borrow the lot by carrying them off in a wheelbarrow.
Harvey Nichols, usually abuzz at this time of year, was practically empty from top to bottom. Marks and Spencer’s in Oxford Street was devoid of customers and small wonder: some of the clothes on their racks are from the stocks that were already in the Malta shop last year.
On a completely different retails stratosphere, Primark is open until 10pm so that anybody can pop in after work. Having only experienced this shop through Grazia magazine and the featured £8 dress, I imagined it would be full of tat. It wasn’t. Shoes cost anything from £2 to £10, party dresses were averaging £12, work suits (pure wool, lined, with a painted on fit and emblazoned with huge Carrie flowers) £20.
No wonder that whereas at all other shops, people were just looking at the windows, or calmly riffling through the racks, at Primark you would feel entirely justified in ripping someone’s hair out just because they had grabbed the last pair of snakeskin print black jeans. The customers were not just going bananas; they were transmogrifying into massive fruit baskets.
The Brits are a crafty lot though. They may be eschewing the shops, and putting on a show of austerity, but they’re buying all the expensive stuff online. reported sales up by 104% over last year, Yoox expects to en 2008 with a 35% growth and net-a-porter not only sees no signs of sales abating, but is actually delivering in brown paper bags, rather than the usual huge black beribboned boxes. They’re even calling it Stealth Shopping now. It’s spending on the sly.
I managed not to have a single bad dinner, and London really is a beautiful melange of all things international right now: there isn’t a sad and forgotten cuisine that is not represented, and that includes Ethiopian. Dinner at Chutney Mary was not as exciting as I thought it would be: the curry selection was, rather than a judicious feast of spices, an overwrought quantity of chilli. I expected more from what is basically an institution in Indian cuisine terms.
At The Orrery I finally met Mark Micallef Cesareo, who, years ago, parted with these local shores when he realised that he would be much better off learning the trade in London. Mark has developed into an excellent Assistant Head Sommelier, doing justice to the items I chose to eat with his pairings. Amongst other things, I had the trio of lobster and the pig’s trotters: wonderful stuff. A two-course supper at The Orrery costs £45 and a 3-course £55. For standards of this calibre, that really is nothing. Eventually I will post a full review on
I also finally made it to the Wolseley and sated my curiosity. Credit crunch be damned, the place, on a weekday, was absolutely booked solid. ‘It’s overrated’, My Book Publisher said. ‘Oh no it ain’t’, I replied ‘It’s good, traditional and serves modern British food at decent prices (for London)’. Their service is flawless, if a little detached. I was disappointed that AA Gill, who was sitting next to me, declined to make conversation. Oh no I wasn’t, and oh no he wasn’t either. I was, on the other hand, seated next to a couple who, after a heated and emotional discussion about cashmere blankets, grabbed each other in the heat of passion across the table and started snogging passionately, smashing a couple of glasses as they went. Stiff upper lip? The recession is doing the Brits’ heads (and wine glasses) in.
I missed TW like crazy. The better the food was, the more I missed him. Moreover, I couldn’t spend all of my dinner messaging him as I usually do because the stupid iPhone’s battery had died hours before. So I was looking forward to our night out at Townhouse 5 a few days after my return.
This place holds a few memories for us: we used to frequent it a lot when we first met. The owners were Joe and Doris and the latter used to sing regularly, sometimes off tune. She also held great discussions with the patrons via whatever there was on the local TV at the time. I miss their fried rabbit with garlic.
I don’t miss the décor, which was absolutely horrible, tatty and kitsch in a very bad way. The property has now been converted in such a stylish way you can hardly remember the original. The dark shelving, the well-placed vases, the sleek wall paper, lighting and colour scheme are like a spread in Elle Décor. In fact, the whole set-up feels like a typical French bistro without (for once) the red walls.
Two out of the three owners are designers who have made it their life’s work to specialise in restaurant and club conversions. They were there on the night (not that you’d really recognise them – they don’t go around with a clipboard in their hands – but their faces are frequently in magazines), a trifle unhappy that their extractor supplier had not attached the motor to the mechanism.
This meant that every five minutes, a huge gust of hot, stenchy air would blast its way from the open kitchen at the back to the restaurant. Local suppliers – as it is, there are apparently very few in this field – are in the habit of destroying all the best-laid plans. In this case, they destroyed my blow-dried, hair. I stank of burnt food by the time we left and there were moments when neither we, nor any of the patrons, could breathe freely.
Another ‘famous’ face out of the triumvirate is Michael Cauchi, who has been at Re del Pesce, at Quadro, and is now here with his son. He’s frequently on TV, which puts me off, and turns the kind of people you will never see patronise this place, on.
Of service, human and female, there is much. In some cases it is less than instructed, but mostly enthusiastic, smiley and friendly. The staff is unmanaged and at many points throughout service we realised that six people were milling behind the bar, but nobody was serving the customers.
The food also takes a very long while to arrive. This may be because of technical hiccups, but in the meantime, all owners should seriously consider giving the people who continue to patronise them a couple of free drinks for their patience.
As it was, we paid a heart-stopping €22 for a (large) starter dish of local primi prawns in garlic, which were overpriced but texture- and flavour-perfect. The regular list is not too exciting and seems to lack identity. It is also full of farmed fish such as awrat and sea-bass. If you ask – and we did – you will get the ‘out of the menu’ list which included TW’s mains of cleaned cipollazza, served with olive oil and cherry tomatoes. ‘It’s a little bland. There’s no excitement anywhere’ he complained. It tasted fine to me but he was right: it needed a juxtaposition of a sour sauce: you can only get away with simplicity like this when the diners are sitting outside in the heat of summer, overlooking the sea.
My ‘starters’ of six of Michael’s signature fish-stuffed ravioli were the kind of item that sends pasta lovers into swoons of delight. Although the fish inside were presumably dead they were swimming in a sauce of salmon flakes and cream. The garnish of coriander leaves should have been chopped and added to the sauce to cut through the cloyingness. I loved them. TW didn’t.
Sadly, we waited almost 45 minutes for them and the prawns to turn up. We weren’t the only ones either: people were twiddling their thumbs, couples were staring into nothingness and groups of chums were escaping outside to smoke, and smoke and smoke some more until the food arrived. At some point, I saw one guy get up from his chair and say the words ‘two hours’ to a waitress. ‘I hope he’s not referring to his wait’ I told TW.
He might have, because our mains also took a long time to arrive. Like other portions we had seen whirl their way out of the kitchen, they were monstrous. I have no idea why Michael is serving such massive portions: surely, he has already realised that the patrons are not the Ta’ Soldi kind. It brings the general tone of the restaurant down.
So my rabbit, deboned and stuffed with Maltese sausage and wrapped in parma, already a mouthful before it has opened its mouth, was enough for two people. The accompanying sauce – the traditional kind served with spaghetti in our rough rabbit restaurants – was a brilliant mix of stock, peas, tomato and diced potato. Normally the whole lot comes on spaghetti, which I eschewed.
The desserts have seen a heavy male hand. My tiramisu needed more cream and more alcohol and came topped with enough powdered cocoa to make your teeth and lips stick to each other. To eat the cream beneath, I used the Eskimo fishing method, dug a hole, and twirled the spoon around until only the cocoa topping remained suspended like a chandelier.
TW’s crème caramel had also seen some savagery in the form of too much gelatin. Instead of being wobbly, it sat there like an architectural structure, and was as equally exciting to eat.
The owners are making quite a fuss about their wine selection, and not without reason too. So I was flabbergasted when I realised that most wines on the huge list come without a year of production. As any wine idiot will tell you, a bottle from this year to the next will not only vary in huge quantities in quality, but also in price. I still have also not figured out why the restaurant says ‘boutique’ on the outside, or why the general design is so beautiful but their business cards have Michael’s un-Brad Pitt-like visage on their upper left-hand corner.
Townhouse 5 has a bit of a way to go, but otherwise, it can be a great night out. A little price tweaking, a more reliable menu with better-sourced ingredients, and a more organised service, and the food will do justice to the décor. A sort of Primark meets Harvey Nicks, if you like.

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