There are quite a few reasons to visit Ristorante La Vela, but perhaps one of the better reasons is the combination of Patron Michelle Muscat’s friendly and welcoming mastery of the Front of House paired with the mastery happening in the Kitchen, headed by Chef Enrico Alecci. The synchronisation of the team at La Vela is what elevates the experience from a casual restaurant to an eatery of class and fine food.
With a choice of indoor or al fresco dining on the marina’s edge, the ambience is flexible and adapted to so many group dynamics. Whether a quick lunch in between meetings, a spot to eat after you’ve berthed your yacht in the marina or a planned night out with family and friends, La Vela is the salvation destination. It also doesn’t hurt that the Patron is big on wine, Masters-Degree-big, resulting in a wine menu that exudes confidence that the choice you make will be a good one; if you want an expert’s advice on pairing, ask Michelle. We did and savoured a Sancerre, Loire, AOC – the perfect companion to the meal that we were about to dive into.
Sicilian cooking is an art of its own. It’s not like Italian cooking – well it is in the basics of cuisine and technique – but the soul is different. There’s a lot more heart in a Sicilian Chef’s dishes; or maybe it resonates quite deeply with me due to the the type of cuisine I grew up with, and cook in my home today – greatly influenced by my grandmother and her copious use of good olive oil, fresh aromatics and seasonings, and remarkable comfort sparking out of each dish (but that’s most probably due to her, and now my, love for good salted butter).
So it’s needless to say, and by no means am I making this review redundant from the start – I felt as though Chef Enrico was giving me the cosiest hug with a vibrant Med flair; I felt at home. Each dish was executed with flavour always at the forefront of the Kitchen’s mind – this is La Vela through my eyes.
In typical, yet modernised, Maltese fashion, we were quickly brought a basket of warm bread accompanied by a smoky ‘nduja butter that was well balanced, smooth and flavoursome. And in typical Maltese fashion, the basket was emptied in two swift swipes per diner.
Quickly after, an amuse bouche of Milanese Arancini found its way to our table via the attentive and rather informed service team. The exterior of the bite size rice ball was crunchy and popped right into your mouth for an wholly immersive experience. The saffron came through gracefully balanced with nutty notes of parmesan hitting the palate right on those salt sensors. The interior was creamy and smooth – perhaps because of the Chef’s use of mascarpone – a great balance to the initial salty crunch.
The next dish to follow was a simple local red prawn, cleaned and lightly seasoned so as to preserve the complexities of this raw ingredient. Rossi, as locals refer to them, are sweet in flavour, smooth in texture, with high mineral notes of the sea – pure, simple, clean and fresh. As fresh as the sea and a true Mediterranean experience.
Keeping to the crudi on offer at La Vela, Chef Enrico prepared his Tuna Tataki – a lightly seared locally caught tuna that brought some Asian fusion to the table. The portion is hearty, the perfect sear on the fish allowed the steak temperature to retain its blue interior – the only way to truly enjoy fresh tuna.
The freshness of the plate was further amplified with the fresh basil sauce, uplifting, fragrant and a clever way to keep the heart of the dish Sicilian in flavour profile. It was also accompanied by a red pepper sauce which was slightly spicy and contributed greatly to the balance needed to tone down the natural iron hints in fresh tuna.
Next up, Chef prepared for us a Tuna Lollipop – not my favourite item sampled, but still pretty packed with flavour, excitement and creativity. The texture here was interesting, it was very welcome to the bite, in the sense that as a meatball, it didn’t crumble; there was a slight crisp on the exterior. Flavour-wise, the dish wasn’t super high on fish levels, quite low and easy on the palate; with a rich nuttiness coating the crispy shell topped with beetroot mayo for added creaminess.
Calamari Fritti – easily destroyed by too much oil, the wrong frying temperature, resulting in dry or chewy fritti, a recipe for disaster, especially when paired with a lousy batter and poor seasoning. But alas, when they’re good, they’re good, and Chef Enrico’s were better than good.
The breading was light and perfectly salted indicating that the oil was fresh and the cooking time spot on, encouraging textural elements that make properly fried food absolutely addictive. The rings in this dish were far more tender than the tantalisingly crispy tentacles.
Neonati are tiny, tiny fish, essentially newborn fish that generally belong to the silver fish category featuring mackerel, sardines, anchovies and other intermediate predators – the most sustainable and nutritious protein source from the sea. They are usually prepared as fritters, fish cakes or patties – depending on their size and presentation.
The Neonati Fritters at La Vela were the best I’ve had in a long time, possibly ever. It’s a whole experience; you start with the crisp on your initial bite, followed by a surprisingly creamy and perfectly seasoned centre filling. The tenderness of the fish makes for such a delicate mouthfeel, but as luscious as the centre is, make sure you finish on a crunchy bit – maybe with a squeeze of lemon.
We move on to something heartier, a plate of freshly made Rock Fish Ravioli. If you think about it, this combination is such a bold mix of cuisines, Italian, Sicilian and Maltese – and so homely in flavour and mouthfeel.
The feeling of nostalgia and comfort was so, so touching during this meal. There was a sense of passion that was hard to shake, every mouthful made you hum in gratitude. The texture of the fish was flaky and sweet – honing in on the rock fish’s most particular characteristics. To add more to the bite of this dish, the fresh pasta pockets are topped with sauteed calamari – a mouthfeel that bounced off the picture of perfection al dente pasta.
This modernised dish was kept authentic with a butter and sage sauce that works so classically with ravioli, but is taken to a whole new height with the use of the fish. The brown butter brought an aroma of nutty richness to a subtle yet impactful dish.
Judging a Chef’s pasta sauce making abilities is best done by ordering the simplest of dishes. Chef Enrico was confident enough to choose his Spaghetti Vongole; a simple dish that highlights every quality of a Chef. Fresh is key here and there’s no doubt that every fish item on this order was the freshest possible; this pasta plate tasted of the sea, with sweet notes coming through from the clams and aromatic overtones of garlic all clinging to the fresh pasta strands.
The meal came to a pure Sicilian finish, with Chef Enrico’s cannolo – spot on – and a tiramisu that’s finished tableside, as a shot of espresso is poured over the fluffy pillows of sponge and creamy mascarpone whisps packing the optimum touch of saltiness.
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.