Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Feeding the soul

I love Mdina must be a well worn cliché. But every time I go there the place manages to fascinate me. I meander around the old lanes and streets and never tire of exploring new sights, new surprises, new features. In the morning it is, bar the many guided tours, a real gem with the light casting interesting, ever-changing shadows. In the evening the place turns into another priceless gem. And walking around in the dark I always manage to get lost in silent reverie. I see noblemen and their dames of old in resplendent clothing worthy of any old-time theatre set. I see young men furtively kissing their beloved in terrible dread of being caught and quartered. And the little lady, coquettishly red in the face, nods her hesitant approval. Yes, Mdina is a place for dreams, dreamers and everlasting surprises.

I headed to Inguanez Alley where Bacchus restaurant lies. The little alley is one of those places which epitomise Mdina for me: small but full of character and history and always capable of oiling my dreams. Bacchus was always one of those dependable old favourite restaurants of mine. I hadn’t been for some years and felt rather as if I had abandoned a great friend or intimate partner for no reason. So I tiptoed inside and waited for a table. I am usually loud and a bit of a lout when I eat in company but Mdina does manage to make me change and keep my volume down. Maybe it is the thought of all those noblemen who walked imperviously or maybe it’s the thought that this is the silent city. It helped that on this particular visit I had with me, my soon-to-be-a-quarter-of-a-century-old son, who loves his food but loves savouring it in relative silence.

I explained to him that I had always loved Bacchus because it is always full of surprises, and unlike some other restaurants it is full of positive surprises. The place, just like Mdina, used to be a dream and the food was always a new revelation of sensations for the palate. I spoke volumes about this to my dismayed son who was worried that my garrulous self would not only disturb his joy but also build up expectations which could not be matched by the food on offer.

Unfortunately when we went it was still nippy so sitting out in the garden was not an option. The beauty of the garden on top of the bastions is amazing. I’ve seen it a few times but it still manages to overwhelm me every time. If you go on a hot day do sit outside; unlike the rest of Malta when we all burn and gasp with sullen tiredness caused by the heat and opt to sit in air-conditioned surroundings, dining out in Mdina will be cool and breezy, especially in the evening.

The place itself is full of historical anecdote and architectural charm. Bacchus, which today offers plush and comfortable seating, was once a gunpowder store back in the time of the Knights. Its bellicose past is hardly discernible, with food and drink served and enjoyed in the most serene surroundings. Bacchus, that god of wine who loved to eat and drink so much, would surely approve.

The history of the restaurant reflects the history of Mdina. Parts of it date back to Arab times, parts to the age of the Knights and all of it has been tastefully and tactfully renovated to give comfort but never indulge in ostentation or strident minimalism. The modern style just would not work in a place like Bacchus, steeped as it is in history and, for a dreamer like me, in fables and age-old stories. How can you visualise a lacy dress and a rouged courtesan in minimalist surroundings?

I made a quick visit to the bathroom before we started our meal. I have never forgotten what a friend once told me: the state of the bathroom is a good indicator of standards. Bacchus passes with flying colours. All in order and spotless. One small problem would be tackling the steep stairs after too much to drink. Bacchus might opt to just drink, eat and forget the ‘rest’.

Now let’s tackle the food or, as my son would say, the place is great, the staff is welcoming but what about the grub?

We were both hungry and we both over-indulged. The food is beautifully presented, in crockery that, to use more vocabulary of the young, rocks. Although we over-ordered, the food is brought to you with just enough of a break to allow you to enjoy and digest it. The waiters are not at all stuffy while doing their job magnificently in clockwork fashion, constantly attentive to every call. The place is relaxed without being provincial – just what dining should be about.

My son ordered a beef carpaccio with local goat’s cheese, argula and olive oil. One look at his face after his first bite made me ask for a taste, which he reluctantly gave me. Yes, I agreed and I would have done an Oliver and asked him for more if he had encouraged me even slightly – but no luck! Oh well, I had my own delight to savour. I had gone for the asparagus in filo pastry. Unfortunately I had to return the favour and part with some. The pastry was superb, the asparagus succulent. My worries about having over-emphasised how good the food and the place was, were over. My son was already truly inspired. But more was to come – and more compliments were due to the chef.

We ordered a bottle of Marsovin Antonin and a Meridiana Melqart. The Melqart was a perfect companion to the carpaccio, the pasta and the veal while the Antonin added fulsome flavours and piquancy to the asparagus and the grouper. Once more Bacchus would nod his divine approval both at the wines imbibed and the choice at his own restaurant.

For my next course I opted for paccheri with goat’s cheese. The only complaint here was that I should have taken a less heavy dish to appreciate the rest even better, but I am not at my strongest when tempted by pasta. And at least it wasn’t an exaggeratedly big helping. My son only gives praise when it is unashamedly due so even a few words from him are impressive. And he was garrulous about his rich seafood lasagne which he described as divine. By this time I was beginning to wonder if the chef was Olympian and got lost on his way back home and thankfully stopped in Mdina.

My main course was a grouper (cerna) with a very original artichoke raviolo with a lobster and dill sauce. I wondered if this dish was going to be overdone, with too many different tastes attacking my buds. But the cerna was another success, as attested by my attendant and attentive son. He had ordered veal escalopes with caramelised fig and apple chutney, which again received a very impressed and impressive nod.

What next? A feast of sweets! We asked for and were allowed to savour a sliver of each delicacy on offer. Sweets are definitely not in short supply and they were freshly made. Why oh why do other restaurants forget our sweet tooth? Why can’t they copy Bacchus and give us a fitting end to a lordly meal? When very often I am presented with sweets that resemble cardboard both in look and taste, with smidgens of shaving foam, my heart and my soul bleed. I loved them all but my firm favourites were the old baker’s brioche and grandmother’s ricotta tart, while my son voted for the warm crêpe and the panna cotta.

Indulge in a great dream, get yourself to Bacchus and let his heavenly food captivate you as it did us and, obviously, by looking at the happy and satisfied faces around us, all the other diners. So I can honestly, hand on heart, shout out: Bacchus is as good as it has always been. If the soul needs feeding then what is on offer there is surely its food.

This article first appeared in the June 2011 issue of MHRA magazine

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