Mona's Meals | Sunday, 13 September 2009
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Waiter, there’s a petrol tank in my soup!

I know of no country in the world - that does include Burundi and Kazakhstan - where a petrol station is the choice for a nice night out. I have done my fair share of travelling, but I am not aware of anywhere where people dress up and go for a cappuccino treat at the airport on a Sunday evening. I have no idea where, on this fine earth full of possibilities, people are willing to risk a €50 fine while double parking in order to buy themselves a pizza so huge it could double up as a horse-drawn carriage’s wheel, as they do in Zebbug.
Then they proceed to battle with it for space behind the steering until death (presumably of the pizza) do them part. There is only one country where I know these things are as common as overflowing skips: this one. Some weeks ago, a massive petrol station opened just outside of Qormi. It says a lot that we do not have a Christian Louboutin shop anywhere, but we have hundreds of places where we can fill up our cars. In the first few weeks, the Qormi destination was not even finished. In fact, there was quite a good supply of dust and mess but no petrol. Yet customers were already queuing up to wash their own cars, and actually paying good money to do it. I find this bizarre. Why pay to ruin my manicure when the nice boys at the airport petrol station will do my car themselves, with a smile, and leave it as gleaming as my nails, for less? Regardless, that wasn’t the oddest thing. That was the fact that after a while, I noticed that the station was absolutely packed with cars whose owners did not seem interested in washing their vehicle at all. What on earth are they doing, I wondered. On the drive back I realised that they were eating. Yes. The station had no petrol yet, but it had a gabbana. People were sitting on plastic chairs, around the plastic tables, eating whatever the gabbana was churning out. Once the petrol arrived - yippee yey! More fuel to spend Sunday roaming around, blocking the outer lane at 20 kilometres an hour and racing at Hal Far – it just became a ‘complete destination’. The idea of eating somewhere full of fuel fumes makes my stomach churn. An espresso and something quick after you’ve been on a motorway for two hours is one thing, but making it my dining experience of choice? Obviously, the air does not have the same effect on these people, whose stomach lining seems to be considerably tougher. There they go, wailing that their wage does not stretch enough yet spending money on washing cars, fuel and burgers: a summation of our lower-middle classes. And I’m being kind. The cappuccino at the airport is another local phenomenon. It started years ago when, in the south, there was nowhere else to go apart from the kazini. Young people would throng to that Mintoffian edifice, way before cappuccino made it to these isles, and socialise. The airport was ‘posh’. Some people still think it is. When I’m off somewhere, which, as you all know is often, I jostle behind a queue of 55-year-olds in their finest, engrossed in munching ‘crab stick and margarine sandwiches’, examining bottles of soft drinks, and ordering the all-important kepuccinu, as big, murky and milky as possible. In summer. Bizarrely, they have even paid to park. Every now and again, if you want to remain sane, you have to head somewhere far away from Malta’s madness. Cities do business lunching in a big way all over the world; we still have not figured out the difference or integreated casual, romantic and business dining as, say, The Wolseley in London has. Two years ago, with the phenomenon of online gaming companies opening in the Gzira area, this town very few people wanted to invest in became the place to open a decent restaurant serving freshly-prepared food. Yet most local entrepreneurs do not see beyond their pock-marked noses so their reaction was mostly “Il-Gzira?! U ejja!” leaving just one lunch outlet for the gamers, and all those doing business in the area. Thankfully the one place is lovely. Chez Philippe is the stuff of restaurant history and adventure. The eponymous Philippe opened it years ago, calling it Bon Pain. The outlet ticked along nicely and Philippe, who used to have his own table just beneath the counter, experimented with food; with importing and retailing fresh French cheese; with wines. Then he made his best discovery of all: a girl called Eunice. Eunice and another girl basically made Chez Philippe. Their love of food, their enthusiasm and their everyday courtesy to the stream of business people was the highlight of everybody’s lunches. All grumbled that there was nowhere else to go to in the area, but once there, felt happy and content: it was like going home. Philippe went away for an entire year around three years ago and left the place in Eunice’s hands. Then he came back. His feet itched to return to the hideaway house on a South American island which he’d built (the house, not the island, although I wouldn’t put it past him). His sojourn only lasted twelve months. Since then, the restaurant has had a much-needed revamp. The wash of lilacs, the neat menu outside, the order inside could only point to one thing: the person running it was a woman. It is. Eunice, after years of waitressing for the boss, finally took the restaurant over last year. Her partner is Lisa Darmanin who, very possibly, is DeDe of Peppino’s daughter doing her own thing. They’ve kept the specials. They still have the ‘meat and offal mixed with fresh leaves and dressing’ combos that go down so well at lunch. In fact, I had duck’s liver for mains and it was wonderful, fresh and anything but homely. Business lunches need to leave you refreshed not craving a nap. My lady companion, who I shall call The Business Partner, doesn’t cook much at home. She leaves that to her surgeon husband, who, I presume, can carve a duck quicker than you could say “Julia Child.” Nonetheless, she eats, and mostly well. She had fried trill and pronounced them perfect. Here, have a little, she said, offering me a piece of the fragrant fried fish, dipping it in the tartare sauce. At some point she found ‘something sour’ and thought it was one of the leaves. In an impromptu lesson in flavour, she finally admitted the red cabbage was bitter and there was a cube of tomato which was off, lurking at the bottom. Sometimes I take it for granted how finely honed my nose and tongue have become to everything and presume that my companions will analyse in the same manner. This is why, I tell them, I must try all their food. As it was, I had the shrimp dumplings, steamed, and probably the closest to the real Hong Kong and Singapore dim sum that I have had in Malta, ever. They were absolutely stunning. I want the recipe. My duck liver on leaves was a very copious main, the offal seared roughly, the insides left grainy and pink. Outstanding you would not call it, but the lack of carbs meant that I would be going until late at night, which, considering how long my working day has become (I’m not grumbling: I love it) I need. TBP had the duck, seared on the outside, pink as a baby’s bottom on the inside, well sourced, well cooked. Since she runs her own company, she ate all the accompanying roast potatoes: nobody will walk into her office and demand to know why she’s sprawled over the desk, having a carb-induced nap. We did not have dessert (who on earth were we trying to kid? Both of us have such a sweet tooth and Chez Philippe has always had the best minimalist desserts ever: chocolate chilli mousse, the best crème brulee...) Still, we were there until 4, discussing and chatting, and nobody interrupted us or tried to chuck us out. Oh, and sorry, but the coffee machine needs an adjustment in temperature: the pressure from the steam is burning the coffee. Privacy and efficiency is the whole point of a business lunch: it should be fortifying, perk-you up and keep you going until your late dinner. You need to consume it in a friendly, but not over-friendly, environment where the hostess knows that the discussion around the table is more important than anything on the plate and that the content of the china is just support. The food is, in fact, not something that would ever compete for a Michelin-rating, but it is still spot-on as far as its regular patrons are concerned. Chez Philippe is the perfect business lunch place. Considering that most male restaurateurs running business-oriented restaurants spend the majority of their time walking around tables, eavesdropping and then telling everybody else what businessman X is doing, there is every possibility that there is no better combination of discretion, service, and perfectly acceptable food, than at this restaurant.

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