Not only is Naan Bar Malta’s best restaurant, as declared at the World Culinary Awards, what makes it special is that it’s a modern Indian restaurant that incorporates traditional Maltese ingredients like rabbit into Indian dishes with effortless ease.
Late last year, in a glittering ceremony in Dubai, the World Culinary Awards declared Naan Bar, a modern Indian restaurant in Valetta, as Malta’s best restaurant. How did a two-year-old Indian restaurant, and the only one in Malta specialising in the cuisine, earn the love of its patrons and voters — votes are cast by culinary industry professionals and the general public — so swiftly?
For one, Naan Bar has a venerable lineage backing it. The proprietor is Mumbai-based Amruda Nair, a third-generation luxury hotelier from the family that created Leela Hotels. Amruda also runs Araiya, a boutique hotel brand that she launched about three years ago to much acclaim. Indeed, Naan Bar’s holding company is called Araiya Malta and there are plans for a boutique hotel in Malta at some point.
“We launched Naan Bar in April 2019, in the year Valetta was the EU Culture Capital,” says Amruda, “At that time I brought in Swaminathan, a Master Chef finalist, who was with me in Doha. He set it up. Now we have Chef Arvind Dangwal, who has been with us for about two years now.”
Why Malta though? “I was looking at Europe as a destination to set something up. The original plan was to look at a boutique hotel. Malta is the only EU country where everything is in English, since it’s a former British colony, so it’s easy to do business there. I wanted to do an Indian-inspired concept, and the Maltese are quite open to foreign influences in general. British tourists are the largest inbound market for Malta. So, it checked a lot of boxes.”
About the name, Amruda says, “We wanted to keep it simple but nothing too clichéd — we wanted people to know there was an Indian element to it, but at the same time it had to have a modern feel.” Naan Bar is in a heritage building called Britannia House on Old Bakery Street, Valetta’s premier dining destination, so the whole context in terms of being a bread bar resonated. “There were lots of different inspirations for the name but really the idea was to keep it modern and simple, identified as Indian but clearly contemporary. And that’s what the food is like as well,” adds Amruda.
The menu is accessible and uncomplicated, with no molecular gastronomy in sight, and balances signature dishes with seasonal specials. The food is a culinary duet between traditional Indian techniques and locally sourced ingredients. Game, for instance, is huge in Malta. One of the highlights of the menu is Tawa Rabbit, a homage to Malta’s hunting tradition and game season. Rabbit is a very traditional dish in Malta and much sought after by those who come into Valetta to dine. Naan Bar has made it its own. Other innovative dishes include Ravioli Samosa, Biryani Arancini and Horse Masala. While the presentation is modern, the flavour profile of the dishes is authentic Indian. “Our goal at Naan Bar is to create a truly social dining experience, presenting a contemporary take on nostalgic dishes yet honouring age-old tradition and technique,” says Amruda.
The interiors are no less sumptuous — and fun. At the first level, when you walk in, there’s an all-copper bar. The industrial ceiling with a rope design (the sort you see on boats) is a nod to Malta’s maritime history. A local Maltese artist,Frankie Azzopardi, has done murals with a jungle vibe on the walls. The mood changes as you enter the dining room. Malta is known for its hand-blown glass, and the hand-blown pendant lights here combine traditional Maltese glass from Mdina with jewel-toned Indian colours. The dining room itself has a circus theme. There’s a chef’s table that can seat 10 and a display kitchen. There’s a private dining room that seats 40 (in entirety, there are 80 covers across two floors). The PDR has an antique look, featuring old, 16th-century prints of monkeys.
Acknowledging new dietary preferences and more health-conscious diners, a part of the menu is keto friendly. While there is no gluten-free naan on the menu, there is an amaranth roti. Amruda’s favourites on the menu include “this lovely tandoori broccoli with cream cheese”. Of the new dishes, she is partial to the biryani arancini, which is served with a burnt garlic raita. “My winter favourite has been a chai panacotta,” she adds.
The menu changes only every six-eight months since Malta has a very long summer, lasting from March to October, when the rains start and herald the onset of winter. Naan Bar does a lot of seasonal stuff in the winter months, like the carrot halwa which is served with seasonal berries. With a slew of fests and festive-season lighting, the heritage town of Valetta comes alive in winter and the Naan Bar menu also tries to capture the festive mood.
According to Amruda, focusing on creating a more local base in the past one year may have tilted things in their favour as far as the award goes. Initially, they depended on expats and tourists coming in but, like for everyone else, the pandemic changed that completely. Valetta being the capital is a destination for Maltese from across the island as well. It’s also where a lot of the embassies, lawyers’ offices, and the government offices are based. “We had the Prime minister come in and dine with us within the first six months of opening,” recalls Amruda.
You can’t expect a seasoned hotelier and restaurateur to be satisfied with one success though. Eventually, the plan is to replicate the concept and take Naan Bar across Southern Europe. Just remember you read it here first.