Malta's tiny capital used to have the reputation of closing down at dusk. Not any more. I found a surprisingly thriving dining scene - though the accommodation left something to be desired...
by Liam Hetherington on February 25, 2011
Café Jubilee easily became our favourite haunt in Valletta. We visited three times in total – though admittedly all for brunch. It is a long narrow Montmatre-style bar, all polished brass, walls groaning with framed interwar posters, and a 1920s chanteuse-heavy soundtrackOn our first visit we found a vacant table in a shielded nook and flicked through a newspaper as we waited to have our order taken. We started off with actual Maltese specialities. Rebecca ordered two ricotta pastizzi. Pastizzi are the local pastries and are probably the cheapest staple on the island – two of them filled Rebecca up and they were only 45 cents each. Pastizzi can be stuffed with anything really, though the classic fillings are either sweet ricotta cheese or peas. Rebecca tried both of these variants on separate visits to Café Jubilee. Her opinion? That the pea pastizzi were nicer.Compared to her cheap pastizzi I tended to go for the more expensive end of the menu. On our first visit I had another Maltese speciality: lampuki pie. This was a filo-pastry pie full of what has to be Malta’s most beloved fish, lampuki (better known elsewhere as dorado, dolphin-fish or mahi-mahi), and capers. I had been worried that a fish pie might be too slimy, but the finished article held together well and was quite dry. The lampuki had a texture like grilled tuna and the flavour was again half-way between tuna and chicken. The price for this was €6.50 but it came accompanied by a side-salad. I also had a pint of fresh orange juice. At €4.40 the OJ alone cost more than Rebecca’s meal.On both our other visits I went for the steak sandwich, a thick toasted article with shredded steak, sauteed mushrooms and cheese. When Rebecca was not indulging in pastizzi she opted for croissants with honey. To be honest the menu is actually pretty extensive which makes it perfect for a brunch spot – depending on how hungry the diner is you can go for either a breakfast dish or a lunch dish. They stay open until late at night however, serving dinner and functioning more as a bar in the evenings.The great thing is that there are now two other Café Jubilees in the country following the success of the Valletta branch. One is across the other side of Marsamxett Harbour in Gżira (near the entrance to Manoel Island). The other is in Independence Square in Victoria over on Gozo.
Since our first trip abroad together (to Lisbon) Rebecca and I have made real efforts to find places places selling whatever the local ‘sweeties’ are. Happily there was a good place right in the middle of Valletta on the main pedestrianised Triq Il-Merkanti that fit the bill perfectly: C Camilleri & Sons.Camilleri & Sons is a glitteringly clean and bright confectioners with a mouth-watering central display of fresh cakes, tarts and pastries. Prices ranged from half a Euro to a couple of Euro or so. The shelves around the exterior of the room were laden with goodies from across Europe – British sweets for the homesick, Danish biscuits, Italian pannetones and other such fancies – as well as local specialities such as Gozitan marmalades. Given the rigorous insistence on set defined mealtimes in Malta a stop here, we found, was great for a snack and satisfied our ‘sweetie’ cravings.
Capistrano is a snazzy little place on Triq I-Ifran (Old Bakery Street) where we had our first evening’s meal in Malta. It had excellent presentation and service. Only three diners were already in place when we arrived just after 7.30, but by about 8 o’clock it had filled up – and this in a town that is supposedly dead at night!The menu was fairly fancy; on top of that they also had a trolley of some lovely fresh fish to choose from. Sadly having only just arrived we didn’t want anything too sizeable to eat, so we just ordered pasta. That didn’t stop the chap running the place bringing us free starters however – an espresso cup filled with cream of vegetable soup and two tiny bruschetta bites – which I thought was a very nice touch.The pasta main courses were a bit of a let down on the taste front, though again they were beautifully presented. Mine was penne with porcini, bacon and tomato sauce. It was actually a bit bland. There wasn’t much mushroom and there wasn’t a vast amount of bacon. In fact (and I rarely say this) it could probably have done with more salt. Rebecca’s pumpkin ravioli left her a bit underwhelmed as well. I washed the meal down with a local Hopleaf beer. I wasn’t particularly impressed with my first impressions of the beer, although I will admit that it did taste better as I drank more of it.The total bill for the pair of us came to €20.55. My thoughts are that while Capistrano is a good solid choice I came away slightly disappointed with the food. This is probably because the presentation and service was so good that the grub was, in comparison, a bit of a let down.
Our most memorable meal in Valletta was not at all the most expensive. It was in a little hide-away called Rampila. In fact we found out that when we visited it had only been open eight days!Rampila is located at (or, rather, under) the junction of Pope Pius V Street (the one that runs over the top of City Gate) and St John’s Cavlier Street, a short road that slopes upward to meet the other by Hastings Gardens. At the junction stairs led down to a doorway, which in turn opened up into a long low arched vault. We were encouraged, however, to continue through the vault out to their terrace.The terrace was truly outstanding. This was once an actual gun emplacement, constructed along with Valletta’s mighty walls in 1570 to defend the city. The vault we had walked though would hence have been home to the gunnery team, soldiers, gunpowder and shot. The terrace was a projection out from the bastions on the exterior of Valetta’s famed city walls, looking out over City Gate. We had great views of the bridge over to the gate and the people who crossed it. Occassionally one would notice us and stare in bewilderment, wondering how we managed to get to such an unlikely location. There were only three other couples out on the patio with us (all chosing tables right along the edge with the best views) and the tables had candles so it was all rather romantic. The Maltese proprieter, Margaret, and her Northern Irish husband looked after us while Chris in the kitchen whipped up the grub. While we waited we were brought a complimentary appetiser. Alongside fresh hot bread rolls came some antipasti – hummus, white broad beans with lots of garlic, and a local dish called bigilla. Bigilla is a paste made from broad beans, garlic, chilli and herbs and is absolutely delicious. We came to look out for it wherever we went thereafter.My actual starter was rabbit liver pate (around €7.50). It was a bit of a brave choice for me, but since the Maltese are the world’s biggest consumers of rabbit I wanted to give it a try. It was okay, but there was too much pate for the few bits of toast that came with it. I should have gone with my first instinct, which was the asparagus wrapped in prosciutto (€9.50) that Rebecca ordered. This was really yummy. It came with two whole jumbo prawns and a prawn / ham sauce as well.I had prawns for my main course, served up with tagliatelle (€12). Rebecca had penne and pesto (€10.50); it was such a big portion she couldn’t actually finish it. Enjoying the atmosphere and the view we stuck around for another drink - orange juice for Rebecca and a Kinnie for me. Kinnie, for those unfamiliar with it, is Malta’s home-grown fizzy drink. It is a sort of dark amber orangeade. It is nowhere near as sweet as Fanta; instead it has quite a bitter, herby aftertaste as though it has been adulterated with one of those medicinal Central European spirits (Jägermeister / Unicum / Riga Black Balsam etc). It is so popular in Malta that Coca-Cola has even launched a rival of their own called Krest there.We were also offered a free liqueur. I had a lemoncello. The final bill came to €47.50 in total.For that price we also got a free lesson in Maltese culture. In a corner of the terrace was a well. Beside it was a strange hanging hook-type affair. This was a rampila. Essentially it’s a tidy-all. In a Maltese stables tack is hung from it, in a kitchen pots and pans. In summer joints of meat are hung from a rampila which is then dangled down a well to keep the meat cool. It was interesting to see after what the restaurant was named. Oddly, however, the restaurant also had an attached museum. This was a museum of village life, constructed by the previous tenant of the vaults down here. This man had constructed a series of semi-automated life-size villagers and situated them in a recreated village scene with a blacksmith’s, potter’s, kitchen, shop and so on. It was obviously a labour of love for the chap, and attempt to preserve a vanishing traditional culture. It has to be said that it was a very bizarre end to a lovely and memorable meal!
Fumia is Valletta’s most famous fish restaurant. We had arrived in Marsaxlokk too late to get a fresh fish luncheon so we thought we would push the boat out and go for an expensive meal when we got back to the city. And it was expensive - €95 for the pair of us.For that money though we got a very good meal in pretty swanky surroundings. It can be found in the stone vaults below the Manoel Theatre. Founded in 1731 by Grand Master Antonia Manoel de Vilhena, it is reputed to be the third oldest working theatre in Europe. It is on the formal side. I wore a shirt and jacket and Rebecca a dress. We would definitely have stuck out if we had gone in t-shirts. Most of the other diners were wearing jackets. Mind you, most of the other diners seemed to be having business dinners and so the waves of (English) conversations about Egyptian imports or the Jersey and Guernesey legal systems washed lightly over us as we ate.We were seated in a corner of the room and while we perused the menu we were brought free appetisers – some of the nicest bruschetta I’ve ever had, either with tomatoes or a sweet yellowy paste.The menu was predominantly fish-based with a Sicilian slant. While it has a stellar reputation, frankly, if you don’t like fish this isn’t the place for you. I started off with fish soup (€12). And I have to say, it was stunning, much heartier than I anticipated, packed with fresh tomatoes and lots of fish. I’m glad I chose it. I did have a brief moment where I thought that I had picked the wrong starter again, but that was only because my eyes bugged out of my head when I saw the size of the trencher of mussels in white wine sauce they brought Rebecca!For the main course Rebecca had scampi, whole halved langoustines. I had mixed grilled fish – scampo, king prawn, tuna steak, calimari and what I think was red snapper. It came served with chips. Rebecca’s was accompanied by salad and fried aubergine. Both really nice, but we missed a trick. The house speciality is whole fish baked in a 5cm thick salt crust. We saw a few other tables order this. It came wheeled on a trolly, the fish hidden by the heap of salt. This then was torched with a mini-flamethrower until blue flames flickered over the crust. This crust was then cracked open and whole chunks of solidified salt lifted away by the wait staff, revealing the fish underneath.We had a bottle of local wine to accompany our meal, an €18 bottle of Ulysses chardonnay from the Xaghra valley on Gozo. A label on the bottle informed us that this was bottle 516 out of a vintage of only 7071. It was very crisp and drinkable – it definitely left us impressed with Maltese wine.As I say, the total bill came to €95, but they really know their fish here. It may not have been as atmospheric as dining outside beside the sea, but the 379-year-old cellars had a good ambiance. If you are unable to leave Valletta and fancy some great fresh fish then Fumia is certainly one to be recommended.
Two very different places stand cheek-by-jowl tucked round the back of the Grand Master’s Palace. The first is an old-style boozer simply called The Pub. These days it has become a shrine to the notorious hell-raising actor Oliver Reed as it was here that the old rascal downed his last pint while filming Gladiator on the island (a lot of his contribution to that film had to be digitally edited in following his death). Now people from across the world gravitate here to have a drink in his memory.A quite different atmsophere is served up next door. The restaurant Ambrosia is a pricey – if slightly quirky – addition to the Valletta dining scene. The food served here is all organic Slow Food. There is no printed menu; instead there is a board on the wall that specifies that day’s dishes. As such the fare is dependent upon what is in season and what is fresh – and presumably helps to liven up the chef’s imagination.We actually only managed to get a table in Ambrosia at the second time of trying. The previous night we had been rebuffed because we didn’t have a reservation. However the following night we, apart from a couple of Americans, were the only ones in the restaurant until we were joined by a French family. The places was, according to the patron, unusually empty. I would therefore recommend making a reservation should you wish to dine here.The food wasn’t your normal run-of-the-mill fare. My starter was grilled asparagus, but served on a bed of leaves and orange, dusted with pecorino (€9). The cheese and orange combination really shouldn’t have worked, yet somehow it did, though it had a rather unusual mouth-feel! Rebecca had leek and parsnip soup (€6). My main was pheasant, again with leeks, in a scrummy red wine and pepper jus (€20), while Rebecca had succulent quails (€18). In both cases separating the meat from the bones was of the difficult side. We had a half-bottle of Maltese Nexus merlot to go with it (€14), which was quite drinkable, though not in the same class as the previous day’s Gozitan chardonnay. I finished off with vanilla panna cotta (€6), which came served with berries and an inner-sole-sized wafer. The food at Ambrosia was great quality, fresh and imaginative. Perhaps because of that it was pretty pricey – our meal for two cost €80. Still it is certainly somewhere that I would recommend to people looking for a touch of fine dining in Valletta.
When we first moved in to the Valletta Boutique Hotel we both thought we had struck lucky. After a couple of nights, however, we couldn’t wait to leave.The hotel is located above Luciano’s Restaurant which itself is located along the Triq Il-Merkanti side of Misraħ San Ġwann. We got our key from the restaurant and were directed to a side-door. Not a word was said about paying! The building was some 400 years old and hence we had to climb three of four flights of narrow stairs decorated with old bicycles, toy trucks and wooden horses. And then, when we reached our room there was another flight of steps! This was a cast iron spiral staircase linking the downstairs portion of the room to an upper mezzanine. Downstairs were two single beds, a flatscreen wall-mounted TV and some strange and fairly sinister decoration – coronation and Silver Jubilee porcelain and a stern-looking picture of Pope Pius V as well as some tasteless late Victorian schmaltz. Upstairs was a double bed and a small bathroom. Thankfully there were no popes or queens to cast disapproving glances at me up there.The window looked straight out over the frontage of St John's Co-Cathedral. This is the hotels’ big selling point. We were right in the middle of Valletta, on one of its main (pedestrianised) streets. It was also one of its weaknesses. Those bell-towers on the cathedral aren’t just for show. The bells chime out every fifteen minutes. Day and night. Oh dear. On special occassions they go into further overdrive. I think one morning there was a university graduation ceremony which meant that from 8am onwards the bells went crazy. But to be honest we could hardly hear them anyway because the hoteliers decided to get up early and do a spot of angle-grinding and drilling in the hallway outside our door. I actually got a little bit hysterical – just when their power tools would momentarily fall silent the bells would give a particularly loud and flat CLONG. This continued for around 40 minutes and was just what we didn’t want first thing in the morning when we trying to have a restful break. I have honestly not come across any hotel with less consideration for their guests. It was absolutely unendurable! So that morning we got up earlier than expected and went and found another hotel for us to use for our last night in Valletta.The cost was €80 a night. Or about €13 per hour of sleep we managed to get here.
The Castille Hotel has a certain faded… well, I won’t say ‘charm’. It reeks of the ‘70s. However, upon returning to Valletta from Gozo for our last night in the country we wanted a simple room for the night. Having had a look at a room and decided that it was alright, though nothing special, we agreed to pay the requested €80 for a double room. The Castille Hotel is located slap bang next to the Auberge de Castille, once the headquarters for the Castillian branch of the Knights of St John. The Auberge is a very ornate building which now houses the offices of the Maltese Prime Minister. On the other side of the hotel was a small, low temple-looking building – it turned out that this was actually Malta’s stock exchange.Our room must have been the best in the place, dead centre on the second floor with a long walk-in window gallery. The only word I can think of to describe our room is ‘blue’. Duck-egg blue walls, blue curtains, blue bedspread, big blue chair. Quite odd. The en suite bathroom had a shower that came off the bath taps, but no hook on the wall from which to hang it, forcing me to shower with one arm stuck up in the air. They lose a star for that. And another for the fact that two chambermaids parked themselves right outside our door for a gossip at 7.30 in the morning. It was still quieter than the Boutique however!The hotel has a restaurant on the top floor. Breakfast is served here in the mornings and they do a good-value set menu in the evenings. There is an exterior balcony where we ate for our last night in Malta. Even in late November it was still (just about) warm enough to dine outdoors. The food wasn’t particularly memorable but the view over the rooftops down towards the Grand Harbour and the lights of the cities ringing it was.
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