Walking through the streets of Valletta at dinner time, you can’t help but feel special. Walking through a boutique hotel, guided to a welcoming setting, as serene and elegant as they come, makes you feel that little more special. Walking up to your table, glowing with a shallow lamp, sparkling cutlery and crystal clear glassware catching your eye – knowing you’re about to tantalise your palate with a MICHELIN culinary experience; you are special.
This fairytale journey of savoury expectation is orchestrated by Executive Chef Victor Borg, where symphonies of texture, curiosity and bold accents are fine tuned in the kitchen of boutique hotel AX Roselli’s Under Grain.
This 1-MICHELIN-starred restaurant sets the perfect ambience of intimacy in a modern-heritage-preserving curation of national architecture, modern dress and contemporary ambience. The servers take every opportunity to elevate your dining experience, explaining every dish, its components and the Chef’s concept with the eloquence of a theatre performer. Dining at Under Grain is a full production, trompe l’oeil of the culinary kind.
The opening scene to Under Grain’s Tasting Menu and Wine Pairing; an assortment of snacks from the kitchen, introducing the first act with a meld of umami magnitude. Juxtaposed by the sweetness of the pumpkin, the lush creamy finish and earthy truffle aroma, the Black Umami Balls hit the right note early on in the meal.
But there’s more to gustation than salty, sweet, sour and bitter. Texture manipulates the way taste is perceived, and a Milanese Arancino is precisely the way to introduce a crunch element that subsequently embraces bold and robust flavour profiles; all the while preserving every element’s freshness and key flavour notes.
The snacks from the kitchen were masterfully presented with attention to detail focused on every dish’s plating, there was also a common note that flowed through the amuse bouche: a sweet note. A masterful plan that was offset by the English sparkling wine that offered delicate vibrant floral and fruit notes with a complex yeasty character – N.V. Henners Brut.
The Cauliflower and Eel Tart as well as the Wagyu Tartare carried a sweetness in their undertones. With the tart, while the instant flavour recognition is cauliflower, a nostalgic taste of the sea suddenly caresses your palate through the eel and seaweed. Similarly with the tartare, there’s a mustard kick that tickles the roof of your mouth, it’s composed beautifully with the Wagyu yet delivers a sweet finish amidst the savoury roundness.
Opening the performance with a touch of sweetness, Chef Victor Borg takes your palate onto its next act, preparing for the next course with a herby and zesty palate cleanser – the perfect route to intersect the snacks and the Bread Course.
Yes, a course dedicated to bread, table cleared, concept explained, “Chef Borg would like to present you with the Bread Course, he believes it should be a stand alone on the menu.”
And it was. The buttery burrata – subtle and faint in flavour, and the bread, sourdough mastery – crunchy, fluffy, warm and light. But serving bread is not special enough for a MICHELIN experience, even if the butter is replaced with burrata. Umami is needed, with a sauteed kingdom of fungi, presented in so many interpretations, pureed to accentuate the creaminess and served raw to balance out the lush.
And of course there’s no logical reason to forgo the wine with the bread, it is a standalone course after all. A low alcohol, light bodied Sauvignon Blanc with high acidity and zesty citrus notes to brighten the plate – a 2021 Lacheteau Haut-Poitou Ohh! Poitou Sauvignon Blanc.
The next course, or perhaps the opening dish, brought a trio of mussels, a succulent, textural and gastronomic display of Mussels, Passion Fruit and Gorgonzola Dolce, served with a slightly smokey but lemon scented Alsace Trimbach Riesling Reserve, 2020 – the perfect companion to the minerality of the shellfish, tartness of the passion fruit and boldness of the Gorgonzola.
Overall the mussels-three-ways were rich and fragrant, presenting a tapioca cracker boosted with umami seasoning and the perfect textural element for the fresh meaty mussels served on a smooth and salty custard that enriched the course with comfort. The pickles served in this course were the right accent against the iron notes of the mussel, while the Gorgonzola dolce rounds it all off in an odd, yet memorable pairing. The crucial component in this dish was the passion fruit gel – a flair of textural acidity that bounces right off the sweetness and boldness of the rounded flavours.
When anything other than the staple protein is presented as the main star of a dish, my heart skips a beat. And when the focus ingredient is a mushroom, of any kind, in any form – I get butterflies. The Sopressini with Roasted Shiitake and Pickled Mushrooms, Black Garlic and Parmesan Froth sent me to a mycelium mecca. And perhaps taken to a whole new height with a Pinot Noir Sancerre.
There’s an air of uncertainty with Sancerre in general – personally I enjoy a simple Sancerre, the acidity-sweetness ratio and the smoothness of the mouthfeel is pleasant, for me, that is. With banter and maybe slight snobbery of the wine, there’s always some sort of indecisiveness that comes along with ordering a bottle of wine; luckily this Tasting Menu came with a Wine Pairing – tinting our glasses with a Pascal Jolivet Sancerre Pinot Noir – it was lush and paired wonderfully with the earthiness of the mushroom course.
A one-plate course that demonstrated technique, finesse, balance, flavour and presentation. Deconstructing the artwork to its base ingredients would be a tedious task in itself, but analysing the dish based on its components is a mesmerising outpour of the Chef’s clear dedication to his artistry.
The aroma was fortified through the air-light foam that crowned the mushroom mount, the shiitake meaty, earthy, rich, succulent and the shimeji pickled to bring out the woodiness or the rich puree that sat beneath the light yet satisfying fresh pasta. The oily burst of flavour that ran through the dish embraced every ingredient to display a well-rounded contender. This was the crescendo for me.
The last savoury recital of the night features a Welsh lamb, a brioche, chard and a potato dish serenading the palate after an olfactory course pumped with gusto. Tearing into the warm brioche filled with lamb shoulder and comte custard – two overpowering tastes that harmonised effortlessly within their soft and buttery bun.
A simple yet meticulous presentation placed a tender fillet of lamb, a charred carrot, a wilted chard leaf and a potato in an audition of the highest culinary critique. The buttery cut of lamb sat anointed in a bold and rich gravy accented against the slightly bitter charred carrots.
Goats cheese and olives were incorporated into the potatoes. This bold use of, rather particular, flavours is so daring of Chef Victor – lamb, goats cheese, olive – all quite distinct; but by the grace of the MICHELIN gods – the chard adding a little breathing room. Perfectly balanced and seamlessly paired with Clarendelle Bordeaux, a bold red with rather high tannic levels.
But the mastery behind this dish is seen through the bergamot puree that adds a different note entirely through its richness and sweetness while the walnut palate cleanser is a bold and beautiful way to close off the savoury courses.
The sweet portion of the Tasting Menu was bountiful and surprised the senses until the curtains closed and the carafes were empty; for this course a M. Chapoutier Banyuls Bila-Haut Rimage – a pairing for the rich chocolate course that was about to make an impression.
Warm Chocolate Mousse of Dark Samana (70%), Caviar Ice Cream and Granola was this act, adorned with gold leaf and possibly the most decadent dessert you’ll endure. The crunch, the glossiness, the way the chocolate travels from spoon to palate. This course brought fun, honesty, simplicity and depth to the menu.
Followed by petit fours and copious amounts of water to trick the brain it’s not been beat by the wrath of Bacchus, a pistachio madeleine, white chocolate truffle, rose water jelly and a curious chocolate and mushroom tart brought the table to a standing ovation.
Carried through our meal by a service staff of the highest calibre, taking note of every diner at the table and annotating our meal with culinary insight, from the select ingredients on each dish to the expertly paired wine selection curated by the restaurant’s sommelier. This royal trip to Under Grain was nothing other than special.
All there’s left to say here; encore Under Grain, bravo.
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.