In recent years, the Saqqaja Hill in Rabat has gained a stellar reputation for its quality restaurants serving delicious menus in the most welcoming community vibe. Step 15 is one of those quality restaurants on that iconic staircase.
Quaint, homely, equipped and serviced with excellence from kitchen to front of house, Step 15 presents elevated staples to their diners in flavour and charisma. As we sat, tucked away by the traditional Maltese stone, airy high-ceilings to broaden our dining area, Keith Bugeja walked up to our table and welcomed us for the evening. Light jazz playing in the background, he brought the a la carte menus our way, but as for wine, he said he saved something special for us – a III Millennium San Giuliano Farm, a Barbera – Nebbiolo blend for the fruitiest ripeness.
With select specials, daily interpretations and timeless classics on Chef Patron Sandro Vella’s menu, asking for his advice was paramount. His recommendations included the Rabbit Sausage and the Fried Gbejna Friska – probably the stars of the night.
Two mini-tarts served as our amuse bouche, creamy interior on a buttery shell, a pleasant way to start the meal, although not quite as impactful as I’d hoped. The starters that followed made up for that loss though.
Starting off with the crispy, Fried Gbejna Friska, perfectly salted to retain that golden exterior, carrying a slightly fragrant note from the cooking oil; perhaps a nutty note that is further amplified by the crunch of the hazelnut crumb that is so happily welcomed on this dish.
The texture contrast here is so interesting. The crispier than ever exterior, juxtaposed with the gooey, soft, stretchy and absolutely Maltese sensation of a gbejna friska – further juxtaposed with the nutty and fragrant bite of the quinoa bed that lies beneath. This was an absolute home run.
Perhaps one of the most Sandroesque dishes, Hand Cut Beef Fillet Carpaccio. I’m a sucker for carpacci, tartare and crudi of any kind, but this was delectable. When the Chef says it’s ‘hand cut’, he means ‘hand cut’ with precision, care and attention. Every fibre of the beef flesh; soft, smooth and easily melted in your mouth, seasoned generously and featuring interesting additions to the accompanying condiments.
Mustard for the zingy spark of character, beetroot jam for the earthy notes, adding sweetness and pairing so elegantly with the mustard. A sweet orange and honey dressing acted like a ponzu-mirin concoction featuring on good Asian menus, however Chef Sandro made it purely Mediterranean, emphasising further on the local aspect; these are Malta’s flavours too, we just need to get creative. Chef even voyaged into the Middle East with the combination of pistachio, orange and honey all mingling together in one dish.
The addition of the goat’s cheese will bring a smile to anyone’s face, and if you know what you’re on about, the added tanginess and element of cream, lush, smoothness gives the beef carpaccio the solidity to transform from a regular starter to an opening course worth returning for.
Hello Rabbit Liver, you were delicious! Liver texture can go either way; it’s either a hit or a miss, with serious impact on the results. Rabbit liver always features a chew, a bite and graininess – in this case, all the right kind. The graininess of this liver dish was odd, but in a very good way; perhaps the texture of the apples, although far firmer than the liver, amplified that sandy feeling inherent to both apple and liver.
Both the apple and the slight touch of orange juice I may have picked up from the dish, added acidity. But to close the dish with a sweet accent, 10 year aged balsamic vinegar and a spot of honey tied it all together. Does this dish need spice? Maybe.
A special on the menu during our visit, Rabbit Sausage – do yourself the biggest favour and order this solely for yourself. Sharing is not part of the package if you are lucky enough to find this beauty on the menu. This should surely be a staple at Step 15 – up for it Chef?
The sausage itself is meaty with a good bite, perhaps coarser than other sausage – quality is being stated here. The flavour profile of the sausage is clean and herbaceous; similar to the iconic Maltese sausage flavour profile, but not as offensive and far less salty. Quite honestly, why ‘rabbit sausage’ is not more widely available on our shores is quite a peculiar thing. Accompanying this beautiful dish was a mash bursting with full, intense, rabbit flavour – delicious to say the least.
Moving on to the pasta course, elegantly folded Pumpkin Ravioli made it to our table. Turgid fresh pasta with a good al dente bite sat blissfully in a gorgonzola sauce with pears and walnuts to texture, freshness and nuttiness respectively. Juxtapositions of sweet and savoury take place the moment the smooth pumpkin filling oozes out of its casing to meet with the sharp, salty and astringent gorgonzola. A great interim between technically presented starters and the wholesome main courses.
USDA Beef Sirloin all round followed shortly. Rich, deep and inherently offaly in flavour, the effortless slice into the perfectly rare cut of meat filled the taste buds with delight and intrigue, further enhanced from the umami-central truffle cream sauce. Building so much intense flavour into a jus or sauce is essential to a good Chef, delivering that level of complexity, with further elements of culinary wonder, is quite a task in itself, nice one Chef. But honestly, nothing beats your potatoes!
Roasties should always be fluffy and soft on the inside, with an airy, buttery texture and, as you know it, crispy, crunchy and all the other apt words to describe the beauty of a roastie’s outside casing. Salted for the gods and absolutely moreish. Pair this with a perfectly cooked steak and an accompaniment of mushrooms, and you’re golden.
At this stage in the game, capacity has usually been fully reached. Our bellies satisfied, our whistles whet with a glorious Barbera – Nebbiolo and our remaining senses all addressed with the fineness of the restaurant. Today, the case was the same; however, dessert must always follow.
Local Imqaret and Kannoli – equally delicious, equally celebrated locally and equally worth a spoonful or two each. The Imqaret were sweet, chewy and gummy with a pull and bite that takes you straight to Valletta in the good old days, where a maqrut would make your trip to the capital city all the more worthwhile. The caramel pull paired with the dried fig ice-cream and burnt marshmallow elevated the street food classic to a presentation of Malta’s culinary ability.
As for the cannolo, the crisp exterior is one we all know and love, while the freshly made interior was made special by Chef Sandro. Sweet ricotta that was perfectly seasoned and generously dipped into a heaping portion of pistachio crumbs, bitter, nutty and earthy. Job done.
And of course, just to make sure the full Step 15 story is delivered adequately, Chef sent over bite-sized versions of his Dark Chocolate and Hazelnut Brownie – moist, buttery, salty and luscious. I’ll see you next week, Chef.
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.