A delightful experience
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A delightful experience

Taro at The Villa
The Villa
Balluta
Tel: 2311 2273

Food: 7/10
Service: 9/10
Ambience: 10/10
Value: 8/10
Overall: 8.5/10

Among the most awkward aspects of writing about food is the expectation it places on friends when they’re feeding me. I try to insist that I am not a picky eater and that I am happiest with simple ingredients. Sometimes it works but, more often than not, it is like they’ve heard Manolo Blahnik say he’d be happy to leave the house in Crocs.

I recently had a conversation with someone who seems to have understood what I’m looking for. I expect any eatery to deliver on its promise, implied or otherwise. She asked an even more pertinent question. How is it that I don’t visit that many fine dining restaurants? Well, if it is anything worth being picky about, then I’m supremely hard to please.

This might sound like it is contradicting something I said merely two paragraphs ago but it is actually quite consistent. While I’m not picky in general terms, if a fine wine is promised, then I have exceedingly high expectations. And the same goes for the promise of fine dining. It’s tough at the top and for good reason. If you’re promising fine dining, then my expectations soar.

I think I’ve had more disappointing meals at restaurants that have attained celebrity status than I have at the greasy spoons that serve proper street food. The only Michelin-starred restaurant I ever ate at and walked out of with unreserved praise went out of business. They simply couldn’t afford to keep running at a loss to meet the expectations they’d created.

This is a tragic state of affairs, and is part of the reason I take exception to the system. There is no such thing as a universality of experience and its pursuit isan expensive fool’s errand. Of course, you can attempt to satisfy as many people as possible. Fast-food franchises do so. But they delight absolutely no one above the age of six because that’s when the toys in the kiddie meals stop putting a smile on our faces.

Delight requires a deep understanding of an audience, primarily of who it is you’re talking to and who you have to consider a casualty. It demands a service that is sensitive to the individual whims of patrons and the knowledge it takes to fulfil them.

Then there’s the food, the centrepiece of any dining excursion. It weaves art, science, and a deep emotional intelligence to yield a cohesive tapestry that will be adored by its intended audience and misunderstood or even scorned by the rest of the world. Whoever proposed the notion of universal popularity has yet to comprehend the core tenets of pleasure.

I could rant about this for days but let’s use my experience at Taro at The Villa to help illustrate the point. The restaurant itself looks and feels gorgeous. The décor is tasteful, with a neutral, warm grey, palette, and occasional dark accents. There’s classical wallpaper and clever use of textures and lighting, all to the soundtrack of understated jazz. Perhaps essentially, the interior has the humility to respect the Villa structure itself, feeling more like old money was spent well than new money trying to impress.

They’ve also gone all the way to present their own crockery, including tiny, tiny jugs with balsamic vinegar and olive oil on that wabi sabi that handmade ceramic achieves so well. Tables are laid with actual linen and satin. This is not to say there weren’t oddities to follow as the meal progressed but perhaps I’m one for understated presentation.

You’d be hard-pressed to improve on this without leaving our shores

The service is close to perfect. The girls who took care of us were polite and made every effort to project a genuine enthusiasm for their undertaking. It is inevitable that service at this level can feel manufactured. Early on we were asked, “So, how was your day?” Maybe that’s pushing it but they took everything we hurled at them in their stride with ease and grace.

The better half decided to go for a dry January. Which is essentially like being temporarily vegan – she won’t touch alcohol for the entire month and speaks about her decision incessantly and without need for prompt. This didn’t derail the service. They prepared and served one of the most accomplished Piña Coladas I’ve tasted, keeping it alcohol-free. I died a little inside at the notion but I deeply admired the service.

Our amuse-bouche was a polenta with ricotta. It was a tiny and perfectly crusted polenta with a crumbled ricotta and a citrus zest. Acid, salt, crunch, and an almost creamy interior made for the perfect initiation for our palate.

The bread rolls are served in a rather kitsch container in the shape of a loaf of bread and the bread rolls inside win points for effort. They’re twisty like a torsade and oil-glazed but quite dense. The olive oil is great as is the 10-year-old balsamic vinegar.

Each of our starters was presented on a different receptacle, for want of a better word. The scallops were atop a rather hefty piece of ceramic that I couldn’t for the life of me reconcile with the surroundings but I’m picky that way. The scallop itself is fantastic, the sauce superb, but the cauliflower is overpowering. I’d remove one of the components of the dish to allow the scallops to shine.

My Wagyu carpaccio and smoked eel is a delightfully original concoction and the formulation into an ice cream is perfect to contrast the crisp components of the dish. The dashi broth is also a clever addition, poured at table after the dish is served. Together, the combination becomes slightly awkward so I preferred to deconstruct it and enjoy the bits I felt worked well together. Once again, I’d have favoured restraint that would present the buttery fat of the beautifully marbled meat to take centre stage.

The intermediate course is another winner. A cleverly sweetened matcha sorbet is pared back to the essentials so the milk and the green tea come through without an overall sweetness taking over. Picture a matcha latte that’s been frozen and you’re almost there.

Our main courses proceeded in the same vein, with a plate that’s specific to each dish. I’ll quickly dispatch the potato side that’s served for both to share. It’s akin to a shredded potato millefeuille that’s overly salted and almost unpleasantly unctuous. I think we’d have done better without it.

My merguez was the highlight of the evening. Having lived for a couple of years in a city with a bustling community from across North Africa, I bought this spiced lamb or beef sausage regularly and grew to love it. The Taro take deconstructs it so the lamb fillet and belly are served separately, with a raita for flavour and a samosa served on the side with harissa. Both cuts of meat are carefully sourced and cooked to the perfect temperature and the raita brings the dish together so you’re tasting merguez without eating a sausage. The harissa is splendid and hot, as it should be. Battered and crispy sweetbreads added a lovely touch in the shape of tiny bursts of flavour. My only quarrel was with the very oily samosa – a component that wouldn’t really be missed were it absent.

The venison is served on a wooden plate and by this time I was tired of wacky crockery but pleased to overlook it and steal a sliver of the delicious loin. Chestnut and liquorice make for a dish that places us firmly in the cold, north of the continent. Once again, a lot is going on with parsnip and ossobuco arranged in a deft circular rosette but the better half was loving every bite.

On to dessert I thought we would progress but there is the lovely surprise addition of a pre-dessert in the shape of a cinnamon and vanilla pannacotta with crushed biscuit, a tiny meringue and edible flowers. It is such a simple and beautiful arrangement I could stand and take a bow in the direction of the kitchen. While doing so, perhaps I could suggest that more of the menu takes a leaf, or rather a petal, out of this book on the virtues of subtlety.

I was intrigued by the dessert that included nuts and honey. The tart does have a slightly bulky base but there’s everything that’s great to end the meal going on – sweetness from honey, crunch and flavour from nuts, and texture and temperature from the ice cream.

At just over €100 for the meal, including a solitary glass of wine and virgin cocktail, the price is just right. The setting and the location are sumptuous, the service is designed to turn an evening out into a proper treat, and the food is imaginative and original. I’m one for a more crafty use of fewer ingredients but this could be chalked to personal preference. If it’s a delightful experience you’re after, you’d be hard-pressed to improve on this without leaving our shores.

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