Nestled in the heart of Valletta round the corner from a constantly regenerating Strait Street, YUGTO opened its doors back in October. Barely four months later, the Asian-tapas-meets-ramen-bar has become one of the go-to eateries in the capital, and a recent menu update has it set to go from strength to strength.
If there’s one thing guests will realise right upon entering YUGTO’s intimate setting is the welcoming energy. Underneath a cheery blossom canopy it’s very easy to forget you’re in the heart of a Mediterranean city and not in a luxurious hut on a beach somewhere in Thailand. The staff of servers are always a couple of steps away, and the gorgeously-lit bar is the centre-piece of all the restaurant’s delicious drinks.
Nearly every single review on the restaurant’s official page – which is still sitting on a perfect 5 star record, by the way – mentions the positive energy and warm atmosphere. Clearly, for constantly smiling owner Shawn Lee, service is just as important as the food on offer.
Luckily, the food here more than matches the hospitality.
Of course, mouth-watering food like this would go amiss without something to drink, and while we were greeted with prosecco, Yugto’s drinks menu will have you spoilt for choice.
In the spirit of sharing, we got a sharing Asian Brezze pot. These are available in vodka and gin cocktail derivations, and the good news is they’re both absolutely to die for. With food this good on offer, it’s weird to end up being just as excited over the drinks. There’s also some great Saké jugs on offer, but if you’re not one for alcoholic drinks, Yugto offers a wide range of teas which will only set you back €2.50. Go for the Spicy Chai if you’re looking for an extra kick for your tastebuds.
Starters kicked off with zucchini fried tempura, which at €4.50 per pot are one of Yugto’s most popular sharing starters. Half a bite into these crispy vegetable fries is all it takes to understand the dish’s popularity, and the accompanying spicy dipping sauce makes them impossible to put down.
Next up was a plate of duck spring rolls, but don’t expect these to be your run-of-the-mill wedding finger food or cheap buffet spring rolls. The €7.50 pot will only have four (albeit big) bites on offer, but it’s more than enough to whet your appetite ahead of the mains.
Again, the accompanying homemade sauce is what really makes this plate, this time being a dark and strong hoisin derivative. The spring rolls will definitely have you wishing they came in servings of six or more, but it’s a good thing they’re not, because there’s way more waiting for you in the kitchen.
Of course, it wouldn’t really be an Asian restaurant experience without some gyoza fun, and Yugto’s pork offering tasted as good as they looked. The gyoza’s deep orange tinge betrayed the marinated aftertaste on offer, and yes; there’s also another dark and delicious dipping sauce waiting for you.
Next up was one of Yugto’s latest additions to the menu; a pair of crispy chicken buns. “They’re kind of like KFC chicken,” Shaun smiled as he explained the cooking style, but he definitely undersold them. A delightfully squishy bun exterior with a perfectly crispy chicken interior, it’s a good thing these things come in twos (they’re one of those things you just wouldn’t be able to have enough of otherwise). Add yet another delicious sauce and fried onions to the mix (along with the optional sriracha and sriracha mayo bottles that populate every table), and you’ve got yourself the winner.
The specials board for the Valentine’s Day week also featured beef brisket buns, confi duck legs, and pork bossam, and Yugto has plans for even more specials (Tomka soup anyone?).
All of that might sound like more than enough to satisfy your average eager eater, but we were only getting started.
The main course called for BBQ smoked ribs, which again meant way more than what one might expect. At €10.50, these 12-hour smoked and marinated beauties are almost shockingly tender, effortlessly coming off the bone and melting in your mouth. The sticky sauce that the half a dozen ribs come swimming in will have you getting your fingers wet and double-dipping all the way to the last bites… we promise it’s not just us. Add some perfectly sticky rice, and you won’t be seeing much of that sauce by the end of your meal.
Joining the ribs was one of the best crispy beef salads this side of the Mediterranean, with a fresh bed of greens really accentuating the perfectly-cooked bites of beef. It might be a huge bowl full of goodies, but it’ll only set you back €8.50. Good luck warding everyone else off those beefy bites though; they smell divine and they will tempt everyone in a two-foot radius.
Shaun returned to the table with another pot of his special gin cocktail and a mischievous smile. “We’re not quite done yet,” he said, bringing out one of Yugto’s latest dessert special.
Four strawberries, dipped in white chocolate flakes, and a generous portion of ice cream in the centre is all it took to get our taste buds flaring all over again. We might’ve been more than satisfied, but this was the nearly literal cherry on the cake.
Yugto isn’t even six months into its arrival in Valletta, but there are already big plans for its takeover elsewhere in Malta. “We’ll be rolling out more information in the coming weeks, but it’s going to be a very busy 2018,” Shaun winked, seeing us off at the end.
Until then, we’ll be waiting with bated breath.