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Steam is rising from my bowl of mussels. Not one of them is grinning at me. They are wholly inedible, ugly things; overdone and dreadfully rubbery. Gone was the plumpness, the sweetness, the creaminess of well-cooked, steamed mussels. They hadn’t even been properly cleaned and debearded. And we all know how repulsive, how deeply unattractive a hairy mussel is. I mourn them. I mourn the starter I could have been smacking my lips over.
The offensive mussels have exited the kitchen at Boathouse restaurant in Xlendi. We are sitting quite literally on the water’s edge, not far from the brightly coloured fishing boats. Despite developers’ best attempts, the bay is just about retaining its Mediterranean charm by a hair’s breadth. From our table in the bay I can smell the salt on the sea spray, but the mussels bear no trace of it.
The rest of us encounter near misses with starters of ravioli – not the best place to have them, it turns out. We begin with some typical Maltese ravjul. Stemming from the old Italian word riavvolgere, meaning to wrap, both Sicilian and Maltese ravioli are ancient, likely predating their Northern Italian cousins.
A beautiful simplicity is to be found in a traditional dish of Maltese ravjul... one that allows for the freshness of the ingredients to shine. Vegetarian based, the elasticity of the fresh pasta dough gives way to a ġbejna or ricotta filling; each plump pillow of pasta smothered in a rich tomato sauce.
Adhering to tradition, Boathouse’s local goat cheese-stuffed ravjul were served with a sweetened tomato sauce and garnished with crisp, chopped parsley. With a filling devoid of any seasoning, the slightly overdone ravioli were no more than reasonably good; the cheese reduced to nothing more than a tasteless, white clump.
A starter of ‘homemade ravioli filled with lobster and a touch of cream cheese tossed in butter, macadamia nuts, cherry tomato and fresh garden herbs’ did not deliver on its promise. Poorly done, the ravioli verged on the insipid... bland and grossly under-seasoned. The lobster filling was of a slippery, gummy consistency which, together with the pasta that was a touch too soft, glued one’s tongue to the roof of one’s mouth.
They hadn’t started out strong. Remarkably, there’s a turn around. When it came to our main course, the kitchen rolled up its sleeves, pulled up its socks and mercifully upped its game. From a heavily overwritten, excessively long menu we had opted for fish. It would have been inconceivable to eat anything else given our proximity to the sea. A medley of the freshest fish and shellfish ensued, the fish cleaned at the table. The kitchen had come back fighting.
The paġell (pandora) had been beautifully cooked, quietly bursting with delicate flavour; soft and succulent. Its skin was crisp and lightly charred, brushed with olive oil and garnished with a light crust of fresh herbs that seasoned the dish perfectly; enhancing the delicacy and refined taste of the meat – delicious!
The meat fell apart in big, firm, luscious flakes with a heavenly simplicity
Fabulously done, the dentici (dentex) was milky, flavourful and lean. The meat fell apart in big, firm, luscious flakes with a heavenly simplicity. This prized Mediterranean fish was an absolute pleasure to savour. We get our fingers fabulously filthy as we ravage some delicious barely grilled red prawns; salaciously succulent and spouting their crimson salty-sweet juices.
While delighted with the main course, I am, however, left to moan about one item, the calamari. Firm and chewy in texture, the rings of pan-fried calamari had been tortured... their slightly sweet, mild flavour obscured by too-thick a smattering of herbs.
The fish at Boathouse had genuinely made us sigh. With the exception of that niggling calamari conundrum, our main course had resulted in a piscatorial symphony that drove away the dull winter days of darkness and despondency with uplifting cooking that was fresh, fragrant and light.
Expectations once more restored, we moved on to dessert. I finish with a devilishly decadent chocolate cake; sublimely bitter, fluffy and served warm. Hazelnut ice cream played support to the cake; melting and forming rivulets that collected at the base of the bowl. What joy! The entire thing was impeccable.
The vanilla panna cotta was quite nice with customary sweet, thick richness. I liked it well enough were it not for my quibble with the jiggle. Flavours were good but the panna cotta hadn’t quite yet set. A deconstructed lemon tart arrived with aplomb, an enormous ball of vanilla ice cream sitting on top. Dusted with icing sugar, the pastry case possessed a crisp, lovely lightness; a sumptuous lemon custard with the perfect sourness to it contained within.
As for the ‘deconstructed’ part of the dessert, it definitely had us baffled. Adored and despised in equal measure, it has become hard to escape this food trend. The idea behind any culinary deconstruction is to break down the traditionally combined elements of a particular, long-established sweet or savoury dish; rearranging and presenting various components in an unconventional manner that is meant to instil awe or surprise.
Devotees of the deconstructed dish will tell you that this is a fresh way of looking at a classic dish... something unique and inventive, yet nonetheless familiar. There was nothing innovative here. The deconstructed lemon tart was not so much deconstructed as broken. It looked very much like an ordinary tart had been placed on a plate whereupon a boulder-sized blob of ice cream had been dropped from a great height, smashing it into segments in the process. It was a destruction and not a deconstruction.
Boathouse runs the risk of a being a same menu, different place sort of restaurant. But I believe it can be better than that. There certainly are good things here. The ingredients are good as are the intentions. They know an awful lot about fish and are experts at smashing a perfectly lovely lemon tart to smithereens. The service at our table had been engaging and charming... the fruit of a veritable army of staff who are incredibly efficient and fully present.
It is only the starters that were a crying shame. Ignore them, all virtue lies in the fish.
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