The agricultural village of Mgarr is known to many for its rabbit restaurants, where families and groups of friends have flocked for years to enjoy a traditional fenkata.
Among the restaurants that are celebrated for the quality and authenticity of their food, and rabbit in particular, is Mgarr United Bar & Restaurant, the restaurant of the Mgarr football club – and chef and owner Joel Tabone has a lot to do with that.
Born and bred in Mgarr, Joel got his start in the industry at just 14 years old, washing dishes in a well-known local restaurant at the time.
Looking back on the beginning of his journey, he admits, “I’ve always liked the kind of genuine restaurants that have something for everyone,” and, after studying and working abroad for some time, he returned to his hometown to put his skills to good use.
He took over Mgarr United eight years ago, together with his partner Paul Camilleri, but you likely won’t see much of Joel in the restaurant, and that’s just the way he likes it – the kitchen is truly his domain, where Joel really excels.
“I take care of all the prep and cook everything myself,” he explains, adding that he only has help with plating. We are mostly known for our rabbit dishes, horsemeat and snails. I cook the rabbit on order, and never make it in advance. I cut it up beforehand, but cook it there and then,” Joel says, crediting the atmosphere, genuine prices and consistency in the quality of the food with what keeps people coming back.
“The only complaints I’ve had are that it can take some time to get the food to the table, but that’s because I insist on cooking everything fresh,” he asserts.
Many of the ingredients in his dishes are, like the chef himself, products of Mgarr, so they don’t have to travel far.
“I source some of the produce from a farmer who grows Mediterranean thyme (saghtar) almost exclusively for us, with the amount I ask him for,” Joel laughs, revealing the one ingredient which he believes makes the rabbit dish extra special.
“We source almost everything from the village,” he smiles, making a sweet mention of a local lady, now in her 70s, who collects and supplies many of the snails for the traditional dish. “She delivers up to 20 kilos a week, and I really appreciate the hard work of people like her.”
Meanwhile, the Maltese sausage is also made for the restaurant by a butcher close by, and the cheeselets (gbejniet) are sourced from Mgarr farmers, as is much of the fresh produce, making the dishes here a true celebration of the agricultural village that’s home to both restaurant and chef.
The first, throwing a spotlight on Mosta-favourite XUFI (Olympic) Café and Bistro, can be found here
The second, showcasing Gozo’s beloved Tal-Furnar Restaurant and Bakery, can be found here
The third, detailing an almost four-decades old traditional and homely restaurant in the south of the island, Qrendi Bocci Club, can be found here
All photos by Inigo Taylor
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