Sensory perception is one of the driving elements of many an aspect of our quotidian routines. What we perceive in terms of our senses influences and guides the way we go about various tasks, but also highlights our enjoyment and experience of numerous features of our existence. One of the most basic of these is the consumption of food and drink. For the consummate approach to offering a refreshments-related service, it could be argued that this should, undoubtedly, be extended to the dining experience in its entirety. That is the sort of ‘complete’ evening we were expecting at the recently opened Marea. It’s safe to say that our hopes were met, and then some!
Boasting the creations of talented young chef Ryan Vella, Marea is nestled within the striking, yet subtly placed Kalkara marina, just below the historical building which was used in past centuries as a military hospital, Bighi, and which now houses the science and discovery centre, Esplora. I first came to learn about its existence through the posts shared on social media by the chef himself. Having previously been dazzled by Ryan’s creations at Mezzodi`, of South Street, Valletta, I determined to follow his move to this new establishment. The menu, which Ryan promptly posted to his Facebook account as soon as the restaurant had been launched, looked rather promising, with its mixture of innovative sushi, sea and land dishes. Aside from the sushi’s obvious provenance, it appeared to offer Mediterranean dishes with Asian accents, with a nod to other cuisines in the daily specials.
Arriving at the place itself was rather amusing, in terms of the fact that our taxi driver took a wrong turn, despite my exhortations for him to take us to the marina itself, as indicated by the location on Google Maps. The restaurant is situated precisely at the far end of the location, obliging diners to take a charming stroll. The walk allows you to admire the fortifications, beautifully restored buildings, as well as take in the stunning view of the Birgu harbour, Kalkara creek and Valletta. Finally, the restaurant itself pops up, emerging from the fortifications like a shiny beacon of glass and muted colours.
The interior of the establishment has clearly been designed with a great deal of care and attention to detail, from the inclusion of greenery to the overall colour scheme, as well as the lighting. The background music might, perhaps, have been a tad loud for my liking, although the specific choice of tunes was adequate to the surroundings – that is, contemporary and low-key. Naturally, any effort made to create a tranquil, restful atmosphere must be buoyed up by the all-important features; that is, the food and service. As far as the latter goes, the taller half and I were waited on in a manner that was, for the most part, beyond reproach – an element of the dining experience which is so crucial to its success, and which has, of late, sadly become something of a rarity on this island and elsewhere, as attested to by the recent anecdotes and reviews shared by friends and acquaintances alike. Perhaps the only aspect that could have been slightly improved upon was the frequency with which the servers refilled our glasses, but I’m nit-picking here.
My starter was one of the day’s specials, a dolphin fish or lampuki ceviche which was nothing short of sublime – the manner in which the heat from the chilli peppers and the aromatic essence of the lemongrass were fused with the acidity that is an ever-present element in this South American dish, yet allowing the delicate, fresh flavour of the dolphin fish to be savoured was, indeed, laudatory. I was also pleased to see that the humble lampuki – our very own national fish – was being put to use in a thoroughly creative and respectful manner. Indeed, one of the successful marks of a sophisticated culinary experience – at least, in my book – frequently constitutes the notion of utilising simple local ingredients in a novel and intriguing manner.
Of course, one of the most marvellous things about dining in company is the sharing of the food and drink itself, other than the experience in general. Also, what better occasion to sample your beloved’s food than a celebration in which you cherish the anniversary of your nuptials? Needless to say, the hubby and I made it a point to try each other’s chosen plates. In this case, my airy ceviche was offset by his rather robust pork belly, teamed with Thai creamed spinach, cucumber and kimchi. The light, refreshing cucumber very cleverly acts as a contrast, a cooling agent for the rest of the dish, which more than packed a punch, with its bold flavours and textures – kimchi itself is not exactly for the faint-hearted, whereas pork belly necessitates expert handling to ensure that its fattiness does not overpower the palate. These introductions to the meal were accompanied by perfectly executed crunchy artisanal bread rolls and savoury herb butter, not to mention one of my preferred vintages, a divine ”Les Duchesses” Domaine Laporte Pouilly-Fumé.
Although it was somewhat early in the year for yours truly to settle for a land-based main, my taller half displayed such enthusiasm for the fish dish we had both been eyeing up that I deferred to his selection. At any rate, I reasoned, I would also get a forkful of his. So it was that my first choice, the coconut and miso marinated black cod, came to be hubby’s main dish, while I opted for the beef fillet. Paired as it was with a mango and avocado salsa and rounded off with a coconut and chilli infused sambal oelek, this would have been the dream segue to my ceviche. Nevertheless, I went the juxtaposition route, chasing my fish starter with a meat plate that benefited from a Sichuan-flavoured pepper hollandaise sauce, the supporting elements consisting of marinated asparagus and a crispy onion and peanut crumble. Both dishes really hit the spot, but, as I suspected, it was hubby’s cod that occupied the winning place for me. Utterly fragrant in its aroma, it still provided enough corporeality to constitute a satisfying centre of the meal. On the other hand, my fillet made its presence strongly felt with the creamy, ever-so-slightly sour enhancement of its succulent, perfectly cooked flesh. Borne up by its firm, piquant partner in the asparagus, it certainly did not fail to impress. The only criticism I would dare to venture here is that I would have liked the crumble’s crunch to be further amplified, in order to present me with a more greatly enhanced array of textures. That would have guaranteed a definite score of at least nine out of ten. The two dishes were further elevated by a stunning Iberian red wine, the Rioja Reserva Marques de Riscal. Rather foolishly, we sometimes tend to eschew Spanish wines for those of their Latin counterparts. In this case, hubby’s choice was more than vindicated, the wine’s distinctively rounded and exquisite cherry notes proving him right.
Almost completely satiated but wishing to take our indulgence all the way, we couldn’t help but be tantalised into perdition by two sweet offerings on the menu, the first consisting of a lemon and kaffir lime tart accompanied by a pistachio and raspberry sorbet, and my own choice, the sesame sponge cake and mascarpone tonka bean cannolo duo set off by a blackberry gel and white chocolate and matcha ice cream. Although they didn’t send my tastebuds into paroxysms of delight, both were original, successfully melding flavours of the West and Orient. Once again, hubby’s choice proved to be a wiser selection than mine, although I must say that the sesame sponge cake skilfully recalled a Japanese-style sweet, in its subtlety and lack of sugary quality.