The informal fine dining restaurant with food that’s been taken to an explosive level.
Located within the luxurious boutique hotel Casa Ellul in Valletta, Risette is a fine dining restaurant led by Chef Andrew Borg, previously Chef Patron at Black Pig Restaurant. I had the pleasure of visiting Black Pig a couple of times when it was open, and at the time, it was dubbed the best restaurant in Malta for food amongst my restaurant-frequenting group of friends. I was not alone in feeling that Chef Andrew Borg offered a completely different level of food, comparable to that in some of the best restaurants throughout the world.
I don't know the full story because I haven't spoken to him about it, but I suspect that this extensively experienced chef, who is completely devoted to fine cuisine, wanted to focus more on his culinary advancement rather than getting drudged down in the daily particulars of running a restaurant. So, while our group was demoralised when Black Pig closed its doors permanently, we were fuelled when we heard that Risette was opening some three months ago.
The setting of the restaurant is within the originally Victorian-period Palazzo Casa Ellul, which was recreated by the illustrious Chris Briffa Architects to combine a past Baroque influence with a present chic elegance. The rooms and common parts of the hotel exhibit an excellent balance of old and new throughout: restored patterned tiles, walls covered in art, and elegant, distinguished antiques, traditional Maltese wooden balconies and contemporary private terraces.
Sitting in the restaurant, the practicality of the design is refined and intimate. There is not a lot that will allow the eyes to search over, save for the person or people sitting in front of you, particularly with the windows covered. The lighting is good, set to focus on and complement the star of the show, yet at the same time harmonious to the complexion. The restaurant's design seems to be the answer to a request which the most serious chefs are sure of: fine dining in an informal setting.
With an emphasis on using fresh produce, Risette’s menu changes weekly according to the items available. On my visit, it begins with the kitchen's latest creations - small dishes to whet the appetite - which include warm Gillardeau oyster with ricotta, chickpea fritters with miso mayonnaise and, interestingly, haggis pie.
The rest of the weekly menu includes detailed dishes, in which every element is painstakingly developed and perfected until it passes the kitchen's rigid standards: to name a few, pork galette with roasted scallops, grilled octopus and cauliflower velouté, braised barley with mussels and buttered leeks, smoked haddock and Avruga caviar, and confit of suckling pig with beetroot and smoked eel.
As we sipped on wine, our appetites where whet by an amuse bouche and freshly-made sourdough bread. I then started off with the Rabbit liver parfait, William pear and sauce ravigote, which was this extremely exciting yet balanced venture of texture and taste. The ravigote offered the perfect pitch of piquancy to the brackish rabbit, while the pear offset the two with its sweetness.
John Dory with Jerusalem artichoke, courgette, radish and a sauce vin jaune entered as my main. The fish was cooked precisely how it ought to be so as to bring out its firm and flaky texture. Meanwhile, the artichoke was so flavoursome that it could have been a dish on its own, yet somehow didn't overpower the delicate sweetness of the John Dory.
My dining companion opted for lamb shoulder with anchovies, pearl barley, goat cheese and peas. The lamb fell apart with succulence, and its strong taste was challenged by the anchovies and goat cheese, bringing the palate an excellently burlesque taste. “You need the peas,” my companion told me. “Everything that’s on this plate is important in every bite.”
That’s the point. Every bite was an explosive expression of the chefs' mastery of working flavours together with innovative techniques. It was totally apparent that the selective menu was full of attentive detail to the fresh and fine produce chosen.
We didn't opt for dessert because the portions are surprisingly sizeable, but the options available were apple mousse with salted caramel, speculoos and yogurt sorbet, hazelnut mille-feuille with yuzu ice-cream, and parsnip cream with salted peanut ice cream and pink grapefruit. A selection of unpasteurised French cheese served with Sharon fruit chutney was also on the menu.
The restaurant’s only downfall is that while the food and the restaurant design were all in keeping with the aim to offer fine dining in an informal setting, the staff didn't seem to get the memo. While they were highly attentive and with their intentions in the right place, they were obtrusive at times, which created a formal stiffness that jarred with the rest of the experience. My companion, who was facing out towards the restaurant, felt uncomfortable more than once, having to actively avoid catching a staff member's eyes in case they thought she wanted something. The wrong gaze would bring an overly subservient attendant to the table, who would ask us if everything was alright for the countless time. They are gentle and accommodating, but lack that effortless affability and relatability that you'd want to see a restaurant such as this.
Price point? It's not inexpensive. You're looking at about €18 for a starter, while a main averages at €30. However, you don't walk away feeling seduced (in a bad way). You feel as though you've just had an experience which you wouldn't otherwise be able to create. What you pay for is the attentive detail, time and expertise that goes into making this experience so exceptional. Any time.