St Julian’s, Paceville
Knocking out everything from temaki to tak kangjung, this is a warm, unfancified place. The staff are all ease and friendliness. The decor is simple and minimal, comfortable and uncluttered. It is in stark contrast to the bright lights of Malta’s No. 1 nightspot just beyond the restaurant’s doors. Inside, it is loud and lively with the laughter of two large groups of Japanese expats.
Staff and diners shout out greetings in Japanese. We understand nothing. What we do understand is the quality of the dumplings that have just been served up, each one a little triumph that has us ooohing and ahhhing with every bite.
Served warm with a salty soy dipping sauce, these little darlings – we taste both the steamed and the crisply fried variety – have been executed beautifully. Each fold of soft, ethereally thin dough delicately pleated and pinched into place. These silken casings cloak an incredibly tasty ground chicken and vegetable filling – absolute moreishness!
A great mound of the steamed variety come heaped in a bowl of traditional Asian dumpling soup; a steaming, clear broth animated with the addition of softened spring onion and thin ribbons of egg. It was wholesome, heart-warming and comforting and a wonderful start to the meal. It was the best of hugs; sumptuous and satisfying.
The bar had been set. We faced the rest of the meal with eager enthusiasm. But things failed to remain this good. They rarely do.
Precise and poised, sushi is all about detail. This culinary art form is the result of an accrual of nimble, individual gestures.
Of poor quality, Club Sushi’s unremarkable sushi proved to be a shambolic mess. Fashioned into thick, large rolls, we sampled the crispy prawn roll, the spicy salmon roll and the ika tempura roll. Although they had been freshly prepared by a sushi chef right before our eyes at the restaurant’s sushi bar, all three were nonetheless unimpressive and deeply disappointing. Flavours were neither clean nor sharp and the ratio of fish to rice was imbalanced.
Hits and misses and some desperately mediocre dishes
Also from the Japanese section of the menu, the Ten Don consisting of mixed tempura – a combination of seafood and vegetables – served on a bed of nicely steamed rice was reasonably good and not greasy in the slightest.
The medley of vegetables was lovely: marrows, green peppers, aubergine and onion that retained moisture and a firm freshness, covered in a contrastingly crispy coating that was light and delicate. This beguilingly flaky outer crust resulted in bite after bite of unctuous crunchiness. It was a textural delight.
But a delight that fast dwindled upon biting into the seafood tempura. While the prawn tempura was adequately tolerable, the battered and fried calamari strips were impossible to eat. An awful amount of tugging and yanking was involved in the sampling of the calamari tempura. It proved an arduous affair. The overdone strips were far too rubbery and tough on the teeth.
And then on to the beef bulgogi dubbab; essentially steamed rice topped with grilled beef, onions and mushrooms. With the exception of the rice and particular seasonings, this is a hearty combination of ingredients that finds itself mirrored in Western cooking. Think of the utter joy of a beef strogonoff or a classic beef bourguignon – both meltingly rich and intensely flavourful, all meatiness and deep umami. Club Sushi’s version of this Korean speciality fell short. It was anything but a roaring success. Despite the earthiness of the mushrooms and the sweetness that came through from the slivers of caramelised onion, the marinated strips of beef were dry and that absolutely killed the dish.
A traditional side dish in Korea, cabbage kimchi, was served along with the bulgogi beef. What in effect arrived was a side plate containing the smallest, stingiest portion imaginable. It couldn’t have contained more than two mouthfuls. Furthermore, it was shockingly bad. This poor excuse for kimchi was so dry that it was barely reddish in colour. Salted and fermented, full of fire and heat, kimchi is synonymous with Korea. Koreans live, breathe and dream of all things kimchi. But beyond kimchi, there is an extensive Korean cuisine to consider.
We hadn’t fared well with the bulgogi. Perhaps we would fare better with the sizzling plate of toppokki – one of the street food greats in Korea. The carb factor in this dish are the rice cakes, slim, little cylinders of rice flour mixed and bound together with salt and boiling water; smooth, slippery and silky like the fattest noodles imaginable. My non-kerbside seafood toppokki had been cooked and overcooked to death.
The rice cake fingers were second-rate and had possibly spent their last days in a frozen packet. Gelatinous and claggy, they were unpleasant to chew and almost impossible to swallow – like sinking your teeth into the densest of chewing gums. I dredged the rice cake pillows through a dark red sea of the most horrific spicy sauce. Many terrors lurked here. Shrivelled strips of tough calamari and shrunken mussels with the life sapped out of the them, all shared the same bed of glossy, gloopy, over-sweetened sauce. Whether or not the dish contained a greater variety of seafood is anyone’s guess. It had all been rendered unrecognisable by the destructive cooking employed. It was a travesty of a dish. It offended the senses and we simply couldn’t bear to eat it.
Club Sushi’s menu does attempt to take you on a journey from Tokyo to Seoul but the Asian theme dies a sudden and untimely death when it comes to dessert. We chose to wind down the evening with a round of quenching cocktails at The Thirsty Barber next door – a little spendy but startlingly good.
With hits and misses and some desperately mediocre dishes, Club Sushi has failed to win me over. Further than the starters, I find it hard to accentuate any other positives. If soup and dumplings can be done exceedingly well, why can’t high standards persist throughout an entire meal?
It would seem that consistency is set to remain the bane of many a Maltese restaurant’s existence in 2018.
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