Townhouse No 3
3-4 Republic Street
Tel 7900 4123
There’s a pleasure to be had in being spoiled. Even the grumpiest of us will, perhaps begrudgingly, acknowledge that it feels good to be treated without having to engage in any strenuous activity.
I won’t go into an analysis of the psychology behind this because I am as qualified to do so as I am to write a novel about what it feels like to be a woman working the cotton fields when slavery was considered a good thing. I’ll stop at the assumption that receiving gratification without effort is fundamentally pleasing.
I had time to think about this after a meal at a restaurant in Rabat called Townhouse No 3. I’ll return to this in a while but first we need some context. I’d heard of the restaurant that is doing all sorts of things with predominantly locally-sourced ingredients and was quite enthused. I’m always intrigued, and a little apprehensive, about the prospect.
I’m intrigued because when this is done well, you’re winning in so many ways that I’m surprised we don’t do more of it. It should, in theory, be the most cost-effective route to responsibly-produced food. I am mildly disgusted at my own species when I see garlic that’s been imported from China on our supermarket shelves. Can we not see that transporting garlic over the seven thousand kilometres between the two countries is a pointlessly wasteful endeavour?
I’m also sceptical about the claim of locally-sourced food. For one thing, we don’t produce excellent ingredients across the entire food spectrum. There is also the fact that plenty of our farming practices are dodgy at best. Lastly, there is the way I’ve seen food that’s been mercilessly clubbed into unrecognisable gruel and labelled ‘a local speciality’ because we know that tourists won’t complain. They’ll simply think it’s what we eat and that they’re just not used to it.
But I had heard good things about Townhouse No 4. I had trouble remembering its name as I always do when a restaurant is called something so instantly forgettable. Luckily, I was on the phone with a resourceful millennial when planning to go there, and my “It’s called something like ‘house number 6’ and it’s in Rabat” was quickly decoded thanks to the power of the interwebz.
The restaurant is, as Dr Watson would be quick to point out, a converted townhouse in Rabat. It’s quite neatly done and, while it won’t win awards for interior design, the space is inherently welcoming and has been respectfully presented. The man who greeted us was polite and affable, bearing that disarming humility that goes so far towards welcoming patrons and making them feel like they actually matter.
He presented us with menus and described the daily specialities in a way that revealed an intimate knowledge of the food. He also described wines that weren’t on the meticulously organised list he’d handed us, going on to let us know that only a select few restaurants carry the limited quantity liquid.
We were one of two tables that were occupied that night and we were treated in a way that was remarkable. It eventually transpired that the man who was doing such a good job of the front of house was none other than the chef patron himself. It was no wonder we were being spoiled. He was able to answer any question we had about the food and entertain our agonising discussions about the wine. I could get used to going to restaurants and being treated to having the chef at our beck and call.
He took our orders and promptly brought us butter they’d churned themselves, bigilla, and an excellent olive oil, along with fresh bread. No matter how strong one’s resolve is, it takes a will of reinforced steel to stop digging into this most simple and delightful of spreads. Neither of us at table that night had a will stronger than the fresh butter we were scooping up.
Choosing our food wasn’t as simple a task as I’d have imagined possible with a menu that presents four options each for starter, middle course, and main. A twice-baked soufflé with rucola and honey roasted nuts is followed by cream of local mushrooms, tarragon scented mascarpone, and rustic croutons. That’s just the first two starters.
We discussed the options endlessly and finally settled on a decent tour of the menu. It is really quite well-priced, with starters hovering around the €10 mark and main courses topping out beneath the €25 ceiling. This presents a slight oddity. The descriptions have fine dining aspirations and the pricing and setting don’t quite match this.
We were hosted by a man who was truly passionate about food and had an admirably firm grasp on the fine art of hospitality
When our starters arrived, we began to form a clearer picture. The presentation is relatively understated but not in a pretentious and minimalist way. The food is neatly and simply presented. My pork cromesqui (a variant of the croquette, with a diced or pulled meat filling and a caul wrap that’s bread battered) is served sliced in half on top of a dollop of pickled veg and with an apple and clove jam beside it. The cheese soufflé is just as simply presented. It was the pumpkin, chilli, and goats cheese ravioli with sage butter that wound up being completely underwhelming in presentation.
I quite enjoyed the cromesqui, even if mild-mannered in flavour, because the combination of pickled vegetables and the excellent apple and clove jam created the traditionally pleasing combination of unctuous meat, acidic structure, and aromatic ripeness. If you think of foie gras with pickles and a confit fruit you’re in the same space.
The soufflé was technically very well executed but the flavour was rather flat. The millennial felt that the description had oversold the dish and I couldn’t help but agree, even if I was lost in secret admiration for the capability to produce such a magnificent soufflé.
The ravioli were filled with a beautifully creamy cheese and pumpkin mash that was somehow missing the chilli. The butter sauce had been ladled on with too much enthusiasm though, making the result overly oily, so one had to drip it off the ravioli quite thoroughly to appreciate the filling.
The chef cleared our tables, replaced our cutlery, saw to our drinks, and within a reasonable time, served our main courses. Once again, these were a mixed bag. The beef sirloin was practically inedible. It had been beautifully seared and served cut into strips like a tagliata but the cut was so tough that there was no way to get through it all.
The monkfish, served with veg ribbons and an olive oil mashed potato, was the next in line and had been suggested as the daily speciality. The fish had been treated with the utmost respect and had been baked to preserve the firm texture of the tail segment of the monkfish, one of nature’s most ungainly species. It does sometimes need a bolster in the flavour department but there was none. It remained a perfectly enjoyable but hardly memorable dish. My pork belly was lovely and rose to the top of my favourite approaches to this delightful cut. Alas, it had been divorced of its crackling and I was left with one half of what was once a marriage quite literally made in heaven. The polenta, root vegetables and gravy that propped up the pork had blended into a mush but it was a tasty mush. All the dish needed was texture and the crackling could have done just that.
The definite star of the show was local chicken ballotine wrapped in speck. It was truly exceptional in texture and tasted exactly like the mental image I had of a restaurant in Rabat that devoted its attention to local produce. It reminded me of the smell in my childhood home when the chicken in the oven had been alive and clucking that same morning.
This caused no end of analysis and discussion. The chef had treated us to an evening where we’d felt we were hosted by a man who was truly passionate about food and had an admirably firm grasp on the fine art of hospitality. We had been spoiled by the man, treated almost unfairly well, possibly at the cost of his attention in the kitchen. It was probably a challenging night for him, one where he’d been forced by circumstance to play two lead roles in the same movie.
We could see what others had been speaking about because the food is inspired and there were moments of brilliance. These moments shone bright enough for us to be determined to return and give the man another chance.