What does it take to rate a restaurant worthy of a hallowed Michelin star?
There are a few things that certainly help – a compelling menu, creative recipes and cooking styles, the aesthetics of the building itself, the training of the staff, a chef with character.
There are many routes to scoring an iconic red star – and Under Grain in Valletta may have found their niche.
Having been awarded a star earlier this year among the first batch of Maltese restaurants to be recognised, the eatery, located within the five-star Rosselli – AX Privilege in Malta’s capital, is the definition of informal luxury.
Surrounded by a bespoke and tailor-made aesthetic – literally – Lovin Malta was among the first to try Under Grain’s new Autumn menu.
Here’s what you can expect when dining at Under Grain and journeying through its À La Carte options.
1. Walk through the quiet Valletta roads and enter the Rosselli, where you’ll be greeted by the receptionist who will then accompany you to a lift.
Once in the lift, give yourself one last check in the mirror because when the door opens – there’ll be a small host of people ready to welcome you, take your coat and direct you to your seat.
2. After finding your table, bask in the boujee vibe.
Maybe grab a measuring tape if you need a new suit while you’re at it; the general style, plus the impeccable, polite and knowledgable staff, only add to the atmosphere.
And it must be said – the volume of music was very appropriate. After the countless meals we’ve seen ruined because the floor manager though the restaurant was a club and began pumping the music, Under Grain’s volume level added to the atmosphere – as it should – instead of taking away from it.
3. Sipping on your welcome glass of good Prosecco, the concise and focused menu will immediately set the tone for the evening.
Under Grain change their menu’s seasonally. The Autumn À La Carte menu offers four starters and four mains.
The fact that it’s still super difficult to choose between the four dishes is a testament to the quality of the creations. And your friendly server passionately breaking down the dishes will only make it more difficult.
4. After much discussion, we had to go for the ravioli of Scottish scallops, caviar and sage beurre blanc and the papiri ‘Gentile selection’ with crispy chicken wings, 24-month aged Parmesan, yeast and raw mushroom.
Michelin-starred chicken wings – say no more, we are definitely here for it.
5. But before that, the bread course.
Homemade sourdough (very relevant for 2020) accompanied by a scoop of slightly salted butter and a side of burrata and aged balsamic vinegar served on a beautiful bed of relish-style onion and two anchovy fritters. Definitely not an intro one can complain about.
One thing that was already apparent was just how tight the kitchen and front of house staff were; as soon as our drinks were approaching the bottom of the glass, they were quietly topped up. When we had finished the bread course, it was roundly removed… only for the next surprise course to appear.
6. Michelin-starred “snacks” have to be the best bites around.
You wouldn’t necessarily expect playfulness to appear in a course during a meal at a formally-trained gourmet restaurant. But Chef Victor Borg clearly wanted to inject some personality into the experience, having created a serving of five plates of bite-sized, flavour-filed creations.
Impressively, no cutlery was served with this course.
The caramelised cauliflower soup with a dash of truffle oil is the kind of drink you want to sip on a cold night, which is probably why it was served in a small cup. But it didn’t all need to be mind-blowing – the bacon breadsticks were simple, crunchy and effective.
However, don’t let those little innocent profiterole-looking snacks fool you – they must be the ultimate form of cheese puffs currently being served on the island, and were an absolute winner for us.
7. The scallop ravioli were delicate and sublime, sharply cut through by the sage beurre blanc.
But the papiri pasta with ridiculously tender chicken wings (which had also been blowtorched on one side for an extra crispy bite) easily stole the show. The aged parmesan sauce had gloriously coasted the perfectly al dente papiri to form a pasta that Rome would be worth sacking for.
A beautiful white wine with hints of white peach and ending notes of vanilla was served with this course, selected by our impeccable host Thomas.
8. Choosing the main course wasn’t any easier.
We were highly tempted by the ‘rosemary porridge’ accompanying the fish of the day and mussel Kiev – have you ever had rosemary porridge? We definitely haven’t. And the clay-baked beetroot that was part of the second choice, caramelised duck in Rabat honey, was also compelling.
But we eventually went with the ‘Assiette’ of black Angus beef, crushed Jerusalem artichokes, ‘garni Forestiere’ and the slow-cooked breast of milk-fed veal, local langoustines, ‘Coco’ beans, squash and coffee.
Honestly though, how good does a menu have to be that even after you order an amazing dish, you are left dreaming of the choices you left out…
9. The two mains showed off just how intense some of these dishes can be.
Veal with a layer of goat’s cheese and roasted pumpkin seeds with langoustine foam, coco beans, squash, mushrooms and coffee shouldn’t work, or make any logical sense. But devoured together, they accompany each other so well, giving diners a new appreciation for disparate ingredients coming together.
And any meat-lover will be satisfied by the various takes on black Angus beef; we personally appreciated the dehydrated artichoke leaf in the middle of the dish, a contemporary nod to one of Malta’s most beloved vegetables.
10. At this point in the meal, we were on cloud nine and feeling a bit full – but with one look at the dessert menu, we knew we could not pass this course up.
This time, two dishes immediately jumped out, both takes on classic Maltese ingredients.
A pressed apple terrine served with mini-doughnuts on a toffee bed and accompanied by rosemary ice-cream was an obvious choice for us.
But the warm local potato and vanilla mousse, served with caramelised milk ice-cream and peanut brittle could not be ignored – and thank God we didn’t, as it was one of the most comforting ends to a meal we’ve had in a while.
11. But the meal hadn’t ended just yet, with some post-desserts being served up.
Now, how can you say no to two of the most beautiful little warm imqarets around?
VERDICT: Every self-professed foodie in Malta needs to go on this culinary journey at least once.
The team at Under Grain were able to pinpoint classic Maltese ingredients – rosemary, potato, goat’s cheese, mqaret – and incorporate them into contemporary world dishes with precision execution.
Combining that with stellar service and a beautiful aesthetic, it’s hard to fault such a well-thought-out experience – and we do mean experience. This is not your standard meal out – and we’re all the luckier for that.
The dishes reviewed above are part of Under Grain’s new Autumn menu, but they offer a wide selection of options, especially during the festive season. You can check them out here.