What do you value the most when choosing a restaurant? How do you decide on the place to go and dine with your loved ones? Is it the ambiance, which draws you in, or is it the food? Tastes vary wildly from one person to another. Some people come to a restaurant to experience something new, willing to try out new dishes. Others prefer to stick to familiar, comforting things, without a desire to experiment with their food. However, one thing unites all restaurant-goers: we want to be satisfied! Consistency in quality – that’s what we are searching for.
Wejla is one of those rare places, where I can be sure that my evening will be great, and my dinner endlessly enjoyable. Being the second culinary project by Stephen and James Schiavone (creators of well-known and successful Tartarun restaurant in Marsaxlokk), Wejla brings the same standard of high-quality food and service.
You might be wondering what “Wejla” really means, and whether there’s a story behind the restaurant’s intriguing name. In fact, the name comes from the English word “Whaleboat”, the name for a small boat, which was used to cross the channels of the Grand Harbour. Over the years, the Maltese adopted the word and moulded it to their mother tongue until it became the localized “wejla”. A fitting choice considering their first restaurant, Tartarun, is named after an old-fashioned throwing net once used by Maltese fishermen. Personally, I love the idea of choosing a complementing name for the second restaurant, anchoring them both firmly in Malta’s seafaring tradition and culture.
Nestled neatly in SmartCity, I could not help but feel, as I set off one fresh February afternoon, that Wejla seemed a long way off the beaten track. Used to the bustling hub that makes up Malta’s central area, the drive ahead seemed like a long one. Luckily, there’s not much that can come between me and my quest for fantastic food, and trust me, this little adventure was certainly worth it! Even before I had arrived at my table, the journey through the picturesque yacht marinas and looming historical bastions of the harbour area made the journey feel almost magical. There are always undiscovered spots of beauty to be found while travelling through Malta – and the road to SmartCity is packed with them.
For all that, I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. Settled inside the fantastic five-star surroundings of SmartCity, Wejla benefits from elegant interior designs by Pippa Toledo, and a spectacular view of the glistening Mediterranean Sea. The spot is truly glorious, with a sprawling terrace ideal for leisurely Maltese family lunches. With its beautiful setting and refined ambiance, it’s also ideal for a business meeting with colleagues or clients alike.
Looking at the growing project- which features a combination of businesses, residences, and shopping- brothers Stephen and James Schiavone knew what was missing: good al fresco dining. However, as it was a chilly February afternoon, we had to sit down inside together, and I was really excited to meet the two passionate restauranteurs. While James made his way quickly to the kitchen to prepare some of his mouthwatering signature dishes, we were lucky enough to talk to Stephen about how it all works.
Aygul is talking to Stephen
I believe that it takes more than just great food to make a restaurant truly special. With Wejla, you definitely get that little something extra, and it comes in the form of its personnel. Apart from being friendly and welcoming, which is an absolute must for any restaurant, the staff knows the food they serve inside out. That’s not easy, when the seasonal menu changes every 3 to 4 months! They are always on hand to answer questions about how the dishes are prepared and are ready to come up with suggestions to suit a diner’s personal requirements. As a customer, this is one of the factors that keeps me coming back to a restaurant time and time again.
If you’re lucky enough to catch Wejla early in the evening, when it’s not packed with contented diners, you might even get the opportunity to chat with Stephen. It’s a real pleasure to talk to someone as passionate about food as he is. Although I had been to Wejla several times before as a guest, the chance to explore the Schiavone brothers’ kitchen and cuisine with them as my guide was a real treat.
Back in 2008, the brothers were still in their early twenties when they established a name for themselves on the Maltese restaurant scene by opening Tartarun. It’s been a busy few years since then, and they’ve learned a lot by working together. Although they were students at ITS when they started planning their first restaurant, they’ve come a very long way. Thanks to the contacts they developed with local fisherman and the fishing industry, it was possible for them to start planning their second restaurant – and that’s how Wejla was born!
“Having a seafood restaurant is very challenging. It’s not easy to plan,” says Stephen. Everything from weather to legal policy changes can have an effect on the menu at a local seafood restaurant. “The price goes up and down, so you’re never too sure about your course of action.” Despite the fact that it’s not always smooth sailing, the brothers have managed to keep their food and service standards up to an enviably high level. All in all, they’re a team of four: James, Stephen, and their parents, with decades of catering experience between them. Stephen and his mother handle the front of house work, his father handles the purchasing of fresh fish, and the magic that happens in the kitchen is all down to James. The fact that all this success comes down to a family working together is nothing short of inspirational to me!
“We support each other very well,” Stephen adds, and it’s clear that the strong family relationship at work lies at the heart of their success. Although the family works together, everyone has their own specialized jobs, and that helps to keep everything running as smoothly as possible.
“We have a fantastic relationship as a whole,” says James, “but everyone is in his own department, which is healthier!”
Everyone has different responsibilities, and while his brother looks after the kitchen as only a chef can, Stephen is in charge of the staff. Recruiting new employees is all down to him, and training the staff to keep the high standard expected of them is one of the most important tasks he faces. According to Stephen, service always comes first, and it’s easy to see how well that comes across when dealing with clients.
However, even with the highest quality of service possible, it wouldn’t be possible to keep patrons coming back time and time again without some truly spectacular food. That’s when James’ culinary talents come in.
As a creative driving force behind the restaurant, James is always looking for ways to improve his skills and master new techniques. Having worked as a chef for the last 8 years, there have been no shortage of challenges at hand, but James never shies away from a new opportunity to learn.
“I think we need a bit more knowledge. You have to be a bit humble enough to say that you are not there yet. The industry is so big and you have learned so much.” He says with an earnest expression.
The centrepiece for Wejla’s ever-changing menu is of course the catch of the day, displayed in fantastic style within the restaurant’s display. Other dishes are added and changed according to the season. Since Malta is blessed with some wonderful seafood, the fish really steal the show- tuna, swordfish and red snapper are some of the standouts. Aside from fish, Wejla also offers delicious local prawns and langoustines, as well as imported fare such as oysters, mussels, clams and scallops, all chosen from the best suppliers in Scotland and France.
prawn carpaccio, fleur de sel, olive oil, lemon juice
According to Stephen, the most popular dishes are the prawn carpaccio, the linguini with lobster, as well as the various antipasti. Even by his own admission, the most exciting dishes in seafood restaurants are the starters – and I couldn’t agree more! Personally, I love to try different dishes wherever I go, and Wejla offers up dishes to share which are absolutely unmissable for anyone who likes to try a little bit of everything.
inhouse salmon pastrami, cucumber and fennel salad, crème fraiche
Wine is another point of pride at Wejla, and there is a wonderful selection available across a range of prices. As you might expect from a restaurant specialising in seafood, the wine list focuses mainly on white grape varieties, keeping a fresh, light, easy-to-drink selection at hand. Thanks to the use of a gadget called a Coravin, they also offer something truly rare in Maltese restaurants: a wide range of wine by the glass. The device allows them to pour out a glass of wine without opening the bottle, meaning there is no risk of oxidisation to the remaining wine. It’s absolutely amazing for anyone who doesn’t wish to order a whole bottle, but still wants the chance to sample some of Wejla’s excellent wines.
As though they weren’t busy enough already, the Schiavones still have bigger and better plans on the horizon. For the time being, James and Stephen have created several menus and events within their restaurants, one of which is an Oyster Bar – delicious addition to the a la carte. With James taking the lead in this project, the bar serves several types of oysters, along with different garnishes and a paired wine list. It already sounds divine!
more oyster. I just can’t get enough of it
I truly believe that good food is something that brings people together, and the Schiavone brothers definitely agree with me there.
“The ambiance of the restaurant, the clutching of the cutlery, the pouring of wine, the noise that comes from the kitchen… It is a beautiful sound and something I grew up with,” say Stephen. Both brothers have fond memories of growing up in and around the culinary industry where their parents worked.
“It’s fun when you see people happy, when they open a bit their eyes when you give them something good,” he says with a smile. I think I’m definitely one of those clients, with wide, round eyes when something beautiful is placed on the plate in front of me.
pork belly with Israeli couscous
For the brothers, happiness lies in seeing their satisfied returning customers, seeing a full house, being busy and serving people. To them, that means that they and their team have done a great job.
Usually the restaurants are rated according to three main criteria: taste, experience and uniqueness. I personally admire Wejla as it keeps these values at an impeccably high standard. Tartarun is a huge success, but I have no doubt that Wejla will certainly continue to wow diners across the island for the foreseeable future.
And what else is in the future for these hardworking brothers? Well, maybe no more seafood for the next few years. After years of working hard and building a business together with their family, maybe it’s time that Stephen and James get back to something they’ve loved ever since they were children… Ice cream! Both brothers look back fondly on the memories of themselves, barely old enough to see over the kitchen counters as they helped their parents press and prepare hundreds of kilos of strawberries for sorbet.
Whatever they decide to put their considerable talents to, I’ll be there… and I’ll be the first in line!
chocolate marquise and hazelnut brownie/ frangelico jelly/ hazelnut ice cream
Interview Aygul Yunusova
Photo of interiors and portraits Alexey Leonov
Photo of food Maria Shebets