As the sultry August heat wanes, the less summer-inclined of us tend to long for shorter days, with weather that is suitable for long walks in the countryside or lunching comfortably in an outdoors area that actually permits covering your arms and legs without prompting a sweating fit and untold clamminess. Yes, we are – mostly – blessed, climate-wise, in terms of being able to call this Southern Mediterranean speck of rock our home. Come early September, though, many like-minded denizens of Malta begin to crave a change of seasons, something which is not to be taken for granted, since our summer usually feels interminable. Very gradually, we begin to balance our choice of exterior evening dining spots with establishments offering both kinds of spaces. It was in such a frame of mind that I decided to make a reservation at a restaurant which has been praised for its innovative approach to local cuisine rather than its ambience. Briju is located in Msida Road, Gzira, smack in the middle of what used to be a steadily avoided area in the town, due to its notorious association with prostitution. Today, although much of this seaside town has been gentrified because of its attraction for international online gaming, marketing and financial companies, the connection in this particular street remains. Any squeamishness about the occupation of Briju’s next-door neighbours is soon, however, banished, once you enter the establishment. The décor consists of a harmonious blend of wooden furniture and sundry items together with potted plants, rendering the space a comfortable and natural one, where shades of brown are balanced by restful green hues – much like an urban arboreum, or some kind of enchanted cut-away treehouse. This is set off by carefully selected framed photos tracing the owner’s long-time familial association with catering and fresh produce.
Our main server for the evening was a charming young girl who hails from Abruzzo, though a number of years on the island have left their imprint on her in the form of a locally-inflected accent. When we explained our predicament – that of being unable to choose between a number of luscious-sounding items on the menu – she offered to ask the chef whether he could put together a mini-tasting menu for us. Luckily, he agreed – we were to have three appetisers, 2 main courses and a dessert, all to share. The first thing we were brought was probably one of the most wonderful-tasting dishes of the evening. A perennial gourmand’s choice because of its rich, robust flavour, Briju’s chicken liver parfait oozed perfect decadence in its succulent composition. The chicken liver itself was strong enough to shine through – a mean feat indeed when considering that it included the establishment’s own home-cured guanciale, as well as being topped by a melt-in-your-mouth layer of the chef’s smoked butter. The final touch to this tasty classic was the slightly sweet, tangy red onion marmalade, which served to give it that touch of sharpness.
The next offering in the starter range was a deliciously light, cool tzatziki tuna, consisting of raw fish with pickled cucumbers, set off by the restaurant’s freshly made yoghurt-based sauce. Since both my partner and I can’t get enough of crudi, we were delighted to find that our third appetiser to share was one featuring that staple Mediterranean crustacean, the gorgeous red prawn. This was teamed with a local peach, the sweetness of which somehow acted as a perfect partner for the star of the dish. The foraged sea herbs and pomegranate molasses served to round off this balance of sweetness and saltiness. As we finished these three dishes, I began to be concerned that my stomach would struggle to make space for the offerings presented to us as the main courses.
These tempting dishes took the form of a local pork flank, which my taller half loves to order, and local swordfish. I found the latter to be a compelling choice of main ingredient, being that it had been, of late, snubbed by local eateries because of its supposedly pedestrian quality and tendency to taste dry if not handled with care. The pork flank was dished up quite simply, cooked, as it was, in rosemary and honey, and served on a bed of Swiss chard. Whilst hubby pronounced the latter to be suitably tender and flavourful, I couldn’t get enough of the swordfish, despite beginning to feel rather full. I would say that this was mostly due to the wonderful manner in which it had been rendered, dispelling the aforementioned notion that swordfish is generally unexciting and dry. The extremely moist, tasty fish was paired with a fragrant saffron garlic aioli, that essential Sicilian vegetable dish which is the most apt accompaniment to fish, especially in summer – that is, caponata – and confit olives. As if this weren’t enough, the vegetable and carbohydrate cohort with this dish took the form of the artfully pressed potatoes, finely sliced layers of local potato and thyme. Even though I can’t really describe myself as a potato aficionado, I was bowled over by this crunchy, cake-like side dish, which was good enough to snack on by itself. The other accompaniment, the roasted pumpkin with almond shavings and gremolata, was also something to write home about. All this deliciousness was washed down with a very distinctive wine, a 2019 Gran Passione from Veneto. This vintage constitutes one of those smooth reds that manages to make its presence strongly felt while being immensely drinkable, as it is able to be matched with a wide variety of dishes and types of ingredients.
Our lovely experience at Briju was, finally, rounded off by a moreish traditional Maltese sweet that I can never seem to get enough of. Given that we were already so satiated by the previous dishes, we decided to share the gorgeously crafted portion of mqaret. The soft yet crispy pastry layers encasing the melt-in-your-mouth dates mixture always leave me wanting more, though in this case I had to content myself with half a portion, as I was full from all the fabulous food! Rating the establishment in terms of all the above in addition to the impeccable service received, which was personalised and just the right side of friendly, my greed was the only element of the evening to find fault with. Needless to say, I will be visiting Briju again. A meal this impressive indubitably deserves an encore.