I’m quite fine, thanks

Asian Café
21, Ta’ Xbiex Seafront, Msida
Tel: 2133 6572

Food: 7/10
Service: 7/10
Ambience: 7/10
Value: 7/10
Overall: 7/10

Many, many moons ago, I worked for a company that distributed food products. The kind of company that buys branded foods from one of the large, international conglo­merates and puts them on our supermarket shelves.

During that stint, I discovered that foods that are available worldwide in what appears to be the same packaging actually varies greatly in flavour. Take the instant coffee or soft drink of your choice. Chances are that the drink you’re imbibing has been tailored to suit our national palate. We have a sweeter tooth, I learned one day thanks to tasting the wrong pro­duct, than Singapore. And this is just one example of a single flavour variation. The permutations are virtually endless.

This was an important lesson and one that, as I grew older, I slowly forgot. In my quest for more variety of flavour and texture I experienced cuisines at their source. Every time I did so, I was stunned by how different food tastes when it is prepared the way it was initially intended. And I gradually developed a preference for virgin dishes.

It seems like every time a country adopts a foreign dish, it modifies it for safety by coaxing it in the direction of what the local market is used to. On one hand this introduces a new culinary style to a market that has not yet experienced it. On the other, it is a bastardisation of an original plan. It is a painting-by-numbers of a Van Gogh – great for kids but an abomination to art lovers.

I’m a food lover. So while I’m allowed a personal preference for authenticity of a recipe, its ingredients and the way it is prepared and served, the market has spoken, and it has said that my opinion doesn’t really matter.

Let’s take sushi as an example. The Japanese exported the notion and the world sat up and listened, only to realise it would have to learn how to use chopsticks. This was deemed a small price to pay. We abandoned cutlery we’d mastered since we first ate a spoon of apple sauce and learned to wrangle a new set of tools.

But we weren’t happy to let go of our favourite ingredients. So, chopsticks warily in hand, we eat rice and seaweed that’s been rolled around chicken breast, canned tuna and smoked salmon. Not necessarily together.

To be fair, the Japanese had already done this to Western cuisine more than a century ago. They imported battered and fried food and came up with their own version called Tonkatsu. Decade upon decade of iteration has turned it into quite the cult food – you choose the breeder, locality, and species of pig you want your cutlet from. Then you eat battered and fried pork.

When I heard there was an Asian café called Genki, I was curious. The name is a colloquial shortening for a Japanese greeting that translates to “How are you?” It’s the more commonly used phrase among friends and it translates back to “I’m fine” when used as a response. Handy.

It’s on the Msida seafront and the address says Ta’ Xbiex. I’m not sure where one starts and the other ends but the pretty little Asian place is closer to Msida church than Busy Bee is. It enjoys a view of the bay and has been done up quite tidily.

The fish is fresh and the rice is pretty much on point for a European sushi

They call it a café so they dodge the expectations that calling it a restaurant raises. Still, they have a polite and effective table service and a pretty comprehensive menu, as well as a conveyor for sushi that runs the length of the sushi bar, so they punch well above the café weight.

There’s also a menu board outside with the daily specialities and, when I visited, this was a spicy seafood curry with fresh coriander. It sounded like just the trick for a warm afternoon but I still spent some time meandering through the menu.

Sushi is split by style and there’s plenty to choose from. Even be­fore you get to the sushi list there is a spread of Asian food with a definite skew towards the Japanese kitchen. Edamame, Yaki­tori, Wakame salad and others form part of the first page, and the menu continues in the same vein.

They even do Omakase, the ultimate in trusting your chef because it basically means you’re happy to sit and leave all the meal in their hands. I realised that my deep dive into the menu was essentially a quest for ramen. There’s yakisoba but that’s not the same. Later on, when paying the bill at the counter, I asked the man who served us whether they ever prepare ramen, seeing that they emphasise their daily specialities, and he said that they often do, particularly when a particular chef is on that day’s shift.

I finally came to a decision. I’d sample the sushi by ordering some nigiri and gunkan and then move onto the day’s curry. The better half ordered a wakame (seaweed) salad to start with and then move onto what Genki call the Kenta platter. This is a bit of a mashup dish, with sushi, dumplings, yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) and edamame beans, meant as a sharing dish for two to nibble or a main course for one.

I wasn’t prepared for the presentation of the sushi. They use lovely ceramic dishes and immaculate plating technique. The fish is fresh and the rice is pretty much on point for a European sushi. The wakame salad is served in a rather large bowl and, slightly deceptively, has a layer of wakame on top of a gene­rous portion of lettuce. Both dishes were served within a reasonable time, and the wait for our mains was another respectable delay. They’ve figured out lunch timings, and that’s always a plus point.

Once again, presentation of the main courses was rather pretty. I had a mound of steamed rice and a generous portion of curry occupying the rest of the plate. Swimming in a thick, slightly sweet and decently hot curry were salmon, clams, squid, white fish, bell peppers, onions, marrows, carrots, fresh chili and plenty of chili flakes. They were careful to label the curry as a hot one and, while I love intense heat, I realise that this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak. There are other mild-mannered curries on the menu to choose from.

The curry is fine. There’s no presence of fresh coriander because there is a little too much going on for it to come through strongly but you’re essentially getting a dish that costs a tenner and is surprisingly well prepared for the humility of the café and the price.

The Kenta platter is quite a large dish. Three skewers offer very tender chicken with Yakitori sauce. They could have a little more charring but are perfectly serviceable. The sushi is, once again, up there with the better take-out places, and the mound of edamame beans make for a lot of fun and munching with the added benefit of a well-salted exterior. The dumplings, served with their little bowl of sweet chilli sauce to dip in, are thoroughly enjoyable.

We paid €40 for the feast, and this included drinks. We could easily have done with less food and walked away having paid half that, but we felt we ought to put the kitchen through its paces.

Outside the café is a surprisingly quiet part of Msida, with the gentle creaking of boat rigging from the marina creating a peaceful soundtrack to the post-prandial energy dip. The first question the café implicitly asks is how we’re doing. And I’ll bet you’ll walk out saying it was all quite fine, thanks.

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