Dining in a restaurants is an experience that takes you out of your home, to an establishment equipped with the perfect tools and the perfect skill set to put together a meal that can take you to astounding places. But what if the euphoric place that Chef takes you is ‘home’ – if ‘home’ was a wonder pot of exquisite dining, of course.
A table of four, a warm, intimate setting where life around you wasn’t important – mostly because the flow of dishes engulfing your full view begs every morsel of your attention. Overall the experience at Briju, on an evening headed by Chef Seb Cini, was an utter delight. From the friendly smiles of the servers on the night to the attention to detail in every plate – and of course, the dessert; you have permission to skip to dessert first, if you like.
If you’d rather get a full description of the meal chronologically, then this is the place to start. Take your first bite from Chef Seb’s menu at Briju with a crispy, fresh, creamy, delicate and spicy starter – the Gamberi Rossi. But not just fresh local red prawns… fresh local red prawns served on a rectangular slice of focaccia, oiled for the gods and charred by the open fires, topped with refreshingly thin slices of cucumber followed by creamy sweet prawns and a fermented spicy sauce. Finished with mint and parsley to add vibrant and earth tones to the umami-packed-texture-treat bite.
This dish was beautiful in every sense. The authenticity of the dish is so spot on, with in-house focaccia, in-house fermented spicy sauce, fresh produce that most definitely was sourced locally and a quintessential culinary treasure caught right in our waters. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.
The Fish Saj was a simple, yet precise, way of how sometimes you’ve got to adapt in life, and in the kitchen. The original version of the Saj was not available, for whatever reason, but the kitchen adapted the dish to feature fish instead of its usual protein element. They also made it a point to inform the staff, who then informed us, the diners – our server also recommended it as one of the favourites for the night.
The understanding that consistency in a restaurant does not necessarily mean your dish it going to be a replica of what you ate on your last visit – that’s a food stream perfected by the fast food industry – a Chef is an artist who recreates a dish with their current energy, their newly learned culinary experiences and their improved palates. A dish is alive. It can change for sustainability reasons, for produce seasonality reasons and for so many other whims that might seem like the ‘better choice’.
This wasn’t a ‘better choice’ than the original Beef Saj, but it was a great one. The fish was moist and salted wonderfully – encased in a light batter. The fattiness of the fish was balanced by the pickled cucumber and zucchini notes accented with bright points in the cucumber. Bouncing off the crunch of the radish that was so different from the crisp of the fish and the rip of the freshly made saj bread. The ends of the hearty bread were scorched by the kitchen’s flame, creating a moreish pull to the dark side.
Besides the saj and focaccia, the fresh house-made bread of the night also featured a luscious sourdough that came with fragrant, piquant and purely pure olive oil, served at the start of our meal and the perch for the next dish – flatbread.
The house-made flatbread was salty and nutty, slightly nipped by the fire; making it smokey and a perfect transport system to the Beef Tartare. The, as their menu puts it, “coal-kissed local beef” was courted by the most luscious of suitors to create a bite so smooth and tantalising. The pickles, za’atar and smoked mayo tying it all in as a tartare with character and that creative licence to dabble in experiments that palatably pay off.
The aroma of the dish was nutty and yeasty; a package that complemented each and every flavour profile of the moreish flatbread. This is where our choice of Malbec really started to pair gracefully with the meal, rounding out the palate as we dug into our Beef Tartare and certainly confirmed a good choice as the Lamb Ragu Agnolotti were savoured.
The pasta, naturally; made in house, was thick and turgid – packed with the flavours of good base products used in the pasta dough Briju is renowned for.
The lamb, which usually has a deep gamey flavour for my palate, masked itself in the rich umami sauce; that I’m sensing featured XO sauce – a rich, sweet, smokey and salty sauce coming from the Cantonese kitchen. But of course, I might be wrong about this, this is just my speculation.
The chives brought a freshness that ties in with the leek filling – an experience of texture, aromatics and creaminess. The starters we opted for were all recommended by our server of the night, we even took their advice on the mains opting for the Beef Tagliata served with smoked bearnaise and creamed corn, and the Mushrooms that came with a celeriac puree.
Plating was important to the Chef throughout the meal. This isn’t the sort of restaurant that serves small, delicate portions that could mimic works of art, this is the sort of restaurant where your plate is visually appealing, it’s bountiful, yet edited, and it’s textbook on taste and essence. The textbook is a modern, ‘this-is-our-way’ style and character. It’s fresh.
The Beef Tagliata was masterfully cooked. The control this team has of their open asado-style cooking method is impeccable. The maillard reaction on the steak’s formed bark was right on the money. The maillard reaction is a chemical reaction resulting in browning of foods in the process of cooking. Here amino acids react, reducing the steak’s sugars to create that distinctive charred steak taste. Every cut of fat-rich steak, like ribeye, sirloin, flap – should be served like this.
The next main was the Mushroom dish, a vegetarian option that did not miss on flavour whatsoever despite its animal-free nature. Chefs get creative with vegetarian or vegan dishes – and its nice to see there are options for everyone, that they’re taken seriously in the local restaurant scene, especially in bucket list restaurants like Briju.
The oyster mushrooms on the dish were good. Scored for added flat top coverage, graced by the nutty aromas of browned butter and mushroom jus. That lush meaty bite in mushrooms usually pairs well with a smooth base, like a polenta, risotto or in this case – pureed celeriac. A unique flavour profile, that I’m not sure I’ve ever really thought about before – but it works.
Now, let’s take this to the next level, the Briju level. Where’s the crunch? Fried buttermilk shimeji mushrooms, of course. There’s no easy way to explain these peculiar fried mushrooms – but they’re thought of as the best vegetarian alternative to fried calamari, but in my, a mushroom appreciator’s opinion, better.
Stay on the veggie trail and sample the sides, with crispy-on-the-outside and smooth-on-the-inside potatoes, a signature at Briju – although that crisp doesn’t feel veggie to me, there’s the glory of animal fat in those potatoes, surely. The Charred Cabbage, possibly the most palatable dish of the night, was fragrant, charred, obviously, and featuring that hint of pucker with the pickled cucumbers that were so on point.
The essence of Briju on this night of our visit was steeped in the character, concept and continuity of Chef Patron Rafel Sammut, but through his mentor’s philosophy and greatly through his inherent Chef destiny, Head Chef Seb Cini was able to demonstrate his foremost depiction of his current state of Chefdom – it was wonderful to experience.
Ohhh… there you are…
Now, if you did feel a little naughty and skipped down to dessert before reading the rest of the tale of Briju through my eyes, I salute you. If you didn’t, that’s fine too… I respect order and a need to whet your appetite before you take it to dessert town. What can I say about the Cardamom and Orange Panna Cotta?
Chef Seb Cini’s Panna Cotta was inspired by a stage he recently completed in Dublin, this dessert acting as a sweet memory of the flavours that resonate with this international training experience – and a delicious one at that. The texture also piques a bundle of interest.
The texture of the panna cotta was thick and dense, not the regular milky, stable and solid panna cotta we know (and love), but more of a melted marshmallow fluff – maybe a marshmallow-cheesecake hybrid. And it was delicious! The sweetness was not overpowering and was brightened with refreshing notes of orange and aromatic earthy tones of cardamom.
But there was also a saltiness that came from the biscuit crumble – easily a standalone dessert – a buttery sprinkling of extra love. Garnished with basil, not only for colour, but also for the striking way it ties the sweet and the savoury of the dish, to simply become a vessel of flavour magnitude.
If you’re the dessert-before-starter-type reader, head back to the top. If you’ve read in an orderly fashion where passion and patience prevail, then like our dinner at Briju, you’ve ended on the most magical of notes.
Kristina Cassar Dowling
HORECA Reviews are based on the experience of the diners on their particular visit. The nature of these reviews is based on the publication’s expertise in the industry, but also highlights the reviewer’s opinions and preferences. The aim of HORECA Reviews is to showcase culinary talent, to give the hospitality industry insight on their patron’s experience and areas for improvement as well as to celebrate the strive for excellence within the sector.