Restaurant review: San Niklaw Estate and Townhouse No 3
The Winery, Triq Strejnu, San Niklaw, Zejtun, Malta. Tel: 00 356 7964 5529. 3&4 Republic Street, Rabat, Malta. Tel: 00 356 7900 4123
In a recent household survey, food came out in front of sun, sea and sand as the single-most important consideration when booking a holiday. The survey, conducted in my house, reveals that if you go to any destination in the Mediterranean basin, the weather will be reliable, hot and sunny. Not the same can be said of the food, however. Food quality differs so much from Nice to Nicosia and from Malaga to Mugla, that it is the deal-breaker before you book.
A first-time visit to Malta last week has altered my map of the Mediterranean irreversibly thanks to a number of unexpected food experiences. With good fortune, the trip coincided with the Baroque Festival of Valletta, the first of a series of major events to mark the tiny and elegant city's elevation to 2018 European Capital of Culture.
This meant that I was transported back 400 years to the celestial sounds of theorbos, crumhorns and sackbuts and the choirs of angels played in some of the most ornate churches on the planet. And in between these concerts the time was productively spent visiting vineyards, restaurants, bistros and cafes.
There is a sense that Malta is developing a sense of confidence reflecting our own recent transformation in Northern Ireland. Whereas, until very recently, we only respected produce that came in by boat and did not consider anything grown or bred here to be particularly good quality, now we are experts on terroir, proud of our food's provenance and evangelistic about our local food stories.
We make a big deal of our beef, pork and lamb, fresh fish and seafood and the green stuff. Maltese chefs are entering this new epoch, food growers are becoming closer to the food experience and some truly exceptional restaurants have opened.
Add to this a small series of vineyards producing notably good and occasionally fantastic wines too small in volume to be exported, then you have the perfect pretexts to catch those new direct services from Belfast (Jet2 and Ryanair have launched new flights from here) and explore them for yourself.
Wines from the San Niklaw vineyard, owned by Malta's only paediatric surgeon John Cauchi - he did his exams in Belfast - are now being lauded by top critics. The great news is that while a limited few bottles are available in some restaurants on the island, the estate arranges wine dinners to suit various group sizes.
Four of us, including our guide Vince DeBono (look him up), star broadcaster Sean Rafferty and Great British Menu judge Matthew Fort booked just such an evening.
Food prepared by local restaurant Rock Salt chef Tor Holmedal and owner Steve De Domenco included three or four dishes of foie gras with apple textures (very Nordic), scallop with pear, dill dust and pea puree, lobster tail with cauliflower and duck breast with truffles and fried casaba and salsify, all beautifully composed, exciting and well-matched.
While the food itself was outstanding my eye was off the ball throughout and focused almost entirely on the wines. For anyone who, like me, had never sampled Maltese wine, the experience was revelatory. Two headliners are the Despatch made from sangiovese grapes, which is dark, smooth and has almost claret-like perfectly balanced tannins.
The Neptunus is from vermentino grapes and has the minerality of the now famous Hungarian fry furmint from Mad. It is crisp, aromatic and staggeringly good. Wine paired dinners range from €50 to €100.
The other must-visit destination restaurant is Townhouse No 3 in Rabat, a small town nestling up close to the heritage 16th-century town of Mdina. The idea is to take a walk around the maze-like, ancient settlement with its convent, baroque churches and elegant little squares and then hurry along to neighbouring Rabat.
Townhouse No 3 is, according to Matthew Fort, deserving of Michelin star status. An unselfconscious little restaurant run by chef patron Malcolm Bartolo, all the food is locally sourced, unusual in Malta. Starters of cured swordfish carpaccio are sparkling and effervescent in the mouth; braised beef rib ravioli with mushroom puree and wild thyme are divine, the pasta flexible and supple. A stuffed collar of pork with fruity Maltese sausage is deep, tender and earthy. It is all sublime and unforgettable.
Our last meal in Malta is a triumph. And we've eaten well in other restaurants, notably Hammett's Macina (go for the lamb rump with couscous), Restaurant Risette in Casa Ellul (hazelnut mille-feuille), Panorama Restaurant in the British Hotel (raviolacci with prawn and scallop) and Noni (rabbit confit).
More Maltese capers in the next week or two.