Whilst staying at Malta’s Westin Dragonara Resort, we originally thought we might be a captive audience in terms of eating out as on the map its peninsular location made it look a little isolated. However, not only was it a short walk into town, but there were also a plethora of cuisines to be tried. Whilst the food was generally good, the generous portion sizes meant we began sharing dishes to avoid feeling overstuffed. As we enjoy wine with dinner, it was good to see so many Maltese options available which varied in price, often either being the cheapest or the most expensive on the menu. Service was friendly from what was generally a young international group of people, but sadly standards varied: service charges were never applied and seemingly not sought. We quickly learned which restaurants we needed to reserve, and which we could just turn up at. All these factors impacted our views, but here’s a brief overview of the ones we tried.
Café Raffael had a great location with a terrace overlooking the picturesque Spinola Bay (around a 15-minute walk from the hotel, with a steep flight of steps to negotiate). It became a firm favourite for a bargain bottle of Maltese wine (€14.50), but our dinner experience was disappointing. The Raffael salad was served very quickly, but was delicious with fresh ingredients and lots of avocado, bacon and cheese. With a basket for cutlery and condiments, the table was cramped, even though the ice bucket was on a stand. Before we’d finished our salad, our deep-fried calamari and chips was served, so we quickly scooped up the remaining salad, and began on the hot calamari. On clearing the plates, a waiter innocently asked, ‘how was everything?’ which resulted in me grumbling and complimentary coffees being served. We never ate there again, despite its excellent location.
Also overlooking Spinola Bay were two sister restaurants, Gululu and Manakis.
Gululu served Maltese food, and we just managed to get a table without a booking, but not long after, ‘the schoolmaster’ wielding clipboard and list, was turning people away. A single starter of hot, crisp cauliflower patties with a sheep’s cheese dip went well with the complimentary basket of thick cut Maltese bread and olive oil. We then shared chicken thighs in a Mediterranean style sauce, served with a side salad and delicious thinly sliced, sauteed potatoes. We finished with Americanos and two recommended Maltese liqueurs: a light pink prickly pear and a dark Leyla, a fusion of carob and herbs. With a bottle of Torres white wine and sparkling water our bill was around €43.
Unlike Gululu, the Greek restaurant Manakis, disappointed. From a range of dips, we decided on hummus, taramasalata and one I’d not heard of, skordalia, said to be made with potatoes. As service was slow, we debated whether the taramasalata would be supermarket pink or more authentic grey. In the end it was neither, as it was unavailable and the skordalia was literally just like mashed potato, but they were served with a generous basket of warm Maltese bread and pitta triangles. Before we’d finished, our main of chicken souvlaki arrived with tzatziki and chips, but the table was just big enough to cope even with our bottle of Torres white and sparkling San Pellegrino. Service improved but it was clear that bookings were required.
Whilst Manakis the Greek disappointed, Leyla the Lebanese didn’t. At 7pm, we had the choice of the six tables on the small outdoor terrace. The Maltese Sauvignon Blanc I’d chosen wasn’t available, but a more expensive Chardonnay was offered at the same price. Having asked the manager if he was Lebanese, he said he was from a country that hadn’t existed since 1991 and I correctly guessed Yugoslavia. We ordered four mezze rather than main courses: spinach sambousek, tabouleh, Arayes (a bread with minced meat and a yoghurt dip) and hummus with pomegranate seeds. With an accompanying, and generously filled ‘sack’ of warm pitta it was perfect. The business card which came with the bill, suggested it was a sister to the French restaurant opposite, Brasserie Rodin.
Maltese cuisine often features the national dish of rabbit, which I avoid, so we dismissed Gozito, whose menu not only featured rabbit three ways, but horse. La Maltija was recommended by the hotel concierge for local cuisine. We sat outside on the pavement terrace and were served a tray with a tomato paste, broad bean pate, chick peas, olives, sun dried tomatoes and butter: whilst the menu suggested a cover charge of €1.50, this didn’t materialise on the bill. We chose a Maltese cheese with redcurrant chutney, before beef olives, or in this case a single fat ‘olive’ with thin beef, and a stuffing of sausage meat which was served with broccoli, spinach and chips. Our waiter appeared to be a member of London’s East End Mafia: small and dressed in black with shaven head and a loud cockney accent, we found him irritating. Having finished our main, we were left alone for ages, until we asked for the bill, when we were offered coffee or dessert.
For an Italian fix we chose Lubelli overlooking St George’s Bay, without realising it was part of the Intercontinental Hotel. Service was excellent and unlike in most places, the table was large, so it was ironic that the wine and water was placed in a chiller clipped on to the edge of the table. Our chosen Falanghina del Sannio wine at €28 wasn’t available, but an alternative at €38 was offered for the same price. Whilst the wine was expensive, the food was good value and we shared Bruschetta Putanesca and a Na-Po pizza with salami.
At The Avenue, there was a stark contrast between the food and service. Unfortunately our table at one end of the large balcony was a little out of the way resulting in haphazard service. We ordered a Maltese Palatino Sauvignon Blanc and water and then fried calamari with mojito mayonnaise and garlic bread which was slow in coming out but then even longer for a shared main of coronation chicken salad. Whilst the food was great, the service was not, but as a service charge is never included on a bill, there is no opportunity to whip it off and vote with my money.
A slightly left field option was the Dragonara Casino, recommended by a Maltese friend. We joined the casino (free membership on production of our passports) and decided not to gamble on an empty stomach. In their brasserie, we enjoyed complimentary Maltese bread and a small canape, before battered red mullet and fresh tuna tagliatelle. With a bottle of Maltese unoaked Chardonnay and San Pellegrino, our bill came to €48. Dinner over, it was time to hit the slots and we agreed on a maximum spend of €10. We slowly began winning and as we got to €52.04, decided to cash in – dinner was paid for.
Nearer to our hotel were two of our favourites and we visited both twice.
When we’re away for any length of time, thoughts always turn to an Indian and Saffron didn’t disappoint. Although there were a few tables on the pavement, it was on the corner of a busy junction, so we ate indoors. Despite our concerns about whether (a) they would have alcohol and (b) the price of it, the wine list was extensive and cheap, and we chose a bottle of Maltese Sauvignon Blanc for €14.50. Having been relatively good at sharing to avoid too much food, we spectacularly overordered with two poppadoms and chutneys, followed by a mixed vegetable platter which included samosa, bhaji and other vegetable tempura, a bargain at €7. By now we were full, but had ordered a main of chicken dum biryani and a garlic naan, which we failed to finish. Lessons learned, on our second attempt, we simply had the same poppadom’s with just a chicken tikka served on a sizzle plate and sides of Bombay aloo and garlic naan. This time, we polished off every morsel.
Our second favourite was Ku’ya Asian Pub, and having read Trip Advisor reviews, we booked the second floor rooftop terrace rather than the air-conditioned restaurant, and our table overlooked the town. The menu was very varied, and we chose a bottle of Marsovin white wine at €22 plus water and two starters: two stuffed pork belly bao buns and four prawn dim sum with a dipping sauce. This was followed by bang bang chicken with noodles and crunchy julienned veg. Whilst there were a few places serving Asian style food of various nationalities, most were take-aways or of the fast food variety, so we returned to Ku’ya for our final night. This time we had a bottle of French Rose Anjou and sparkling water and four dishes: a noodle salad, bang bang spring rolls, Thai beef patties and Thai beef fish cakes. The place didn’t disappoint and completed two weeks of good food.