Malena, a new restaurant on the block of Avenue Road starring Sotto Sotto and L'Unita , makes a play at stealing the show with its Ionian seafood menu. Malena is co-owned by David Minicucci who also co-owns L'Unita, so the competition is in the family. The main event is the seafood so meatatarians can consider themselves duly warned.
It's hard to go wrong starting with Oysters on the Half Shell (market price) accompanied by lemon, agro dolce, which translates to a sweet and sour sauce, and "bomba", a fiery red pepper sauce. The oysters are listed as Rodney's finest and choice is based on availability (above Indian and Chef Creek). It's a treat to find Stone Crab Claws served with avgolemono and fresh dill. I'm not a fan of stone crab claws and I'm not converted here. Like the other stone crab claws I've had these are bland and the thick lemony sauce doesn't pack enough punch for me to overcome the price tag ($19 for one claw).
The Smoked Halibut Cheek Cakes arrive next. To me, the cheeks are the best part of the fish and they fall apart in delicate chunks, accompanied by a lemony cream sauce, shallots and horta, usually bitter greens, but just sliced romaine here. The cheek cakes disappear so quickly I want seconds.
The Wild Salmon Crudo ($12) is beautifully presented topped with a pistachio and radish slaw and spring ramp pesto. The ramps, also called wild leeks, are earthy but the pesto as a whole seems under-seasoned and adds little to the dish. The salmon slices, however, are redeeming and divinely tender. We then have the special, an appetizer portion of BC Spot Prawns ($14) that comes with three beautiful head-on specimens. The server suggests that I break the heads off and suck the juices. I need no encouragement. The flavour is sweet, nearing ambrosial. The just-cooked prawns are perfection and I'm ready for more.
The Ionian Seafood Soup ($16), a tomato-based broth with clams, mussels and shrimp topped with a slice of grilled ciabatta is heavenly. Sharing it with a friend, the soup shown above is my half portion and I'm smitten at first sip.
I skip the fritto misto - my first time here, the batter was heavy - and move right on to the star attraction, an item from their daily fish selection. I choose a Halibut Filet with a side of Baby Zucchini ($30). The market fish is served with lemon marmellata, cucumber tzatziki and olive tapenade. The halibut is presented simply, an ideal showcase for this fresh filet that's fork tender and flakes beautifully.
My companion tries the Grilled Spiced Quails ($26) served with baby carrots and cubed pancetta, dotted with lemon vincotto, a wine reduction. I take one succulent bite after the next and think it isn't a bad idea after all to order quail at a seafood restaurant.
To top it off, I have the Sheep's Milk Moliterno ($8), unpasteurized truffle-infused cheese with warm walnut bread pudding and wildflower honey. It's a cheese and dessert course together. The cheese is dense and rich and before it sends me over the top, I decadently finish the scrumptious bread pudding.
My friend orders the Gelato & Sorbetto ($8) choosing a trio of dark chocolate with aged balsamic and fig, almond with banana and sesame brittle, and my favourite, blood orange with fennel marshmallow, a truly refreshing choice to end the evening. If you can handle the sticker shock, Malena provides an intimate setting with charming service for a memorable seafood experience.
Tuesday and Wednesday - 5:30pm to 10:00pm
Thursday to Saturday - 5:30pm to 11:00pm
Sunday and Monday - closed