VALLETTA: Malta’s culinary scene has never looked brighter. A six week stay on the island in summer only served to confirm what I have been observing over the past few years. The introduction of Michelin, despite some criticism, has really pushed the bar as ambitious chefs and restaurateurs step up their game amid the hardships and difficulties that the pandemic has created.
There were two dinners over the summer that taken separately both could easily fit the bill as among the best I’ve enjoyed on this Mediterranean island.
They say comparisons are odious and indeed it is unfair to compare the two experiences because one involved Alex Dilling, the chef of former 2 Michelin star restaurant The Greenhouse with an impressive pedigree of working under French giants Alain Ducasse and Helene Darroze before going solo. The British chef was spending 100 days at Ion – The Harbour (later extended), one of the latest restaurants to clinch a Michelin star under talented Maltese chef Andrew Borg.
The second was at Noni under chef Jonathan Brincat who after clinching a Michelin star for his restaurant is really pushing the bar when it comes to a focus on local produce, flavour and technique.
The two meals together highlighted the country’s ambition of becoming a culinary destination despite the evident limitations when it comes to fresh produce. That’s one challenge that is often mentioned on this small island with limited resources.
I’d eaten before at Noni when Jonathan was giving a modernised twist to some of Malta’s classic dishes and flavours. What was an excellent ‘bistro’ has become a fine dining restaurant that clearly aims to push the boundaries on the island. The chef is working on finding producers that can give him produce he can work with on a daily basis.
As for Alex Dilling, apart from his classic dishes, he has been able to showcase the finest of Malta’s fish and seafood which as he himself says has been nothing short of outstanding. For that he has his suppliers to thank and they are none other than the family that runs Tartarun, another restaurant that might be slightly off the radar, though the work being done by the Schiavone brothers (together with their parents) is really worth following and discovering.
The presence of Alex Dilling on the island this summer has been extremely important for the local culinary scene. It helps when a ‘foreigner’ of that calibre gives a new interpretation to certain ingredients. Take the local ‘gbejna’ or the humble fresh sheep’s milk cheese which is maybe the most ubiquitous Maltese cheese though there has been a movement over the past few years by one or two cheese producers to move beyond the traditional. He used it as a replacement to butter to accompany the bread service whipping it with olive oil from Gozo. In that simple gesture, he’s shown what can be done with technique and creativity taking what’s normally found in the most humble of Maltese platters into a fine dining context.
Alex Dilling’s menu has put the limelight on locally sourced fish and shellfish though many of the dishes he has served during the 100 day pop-up were classic dishes reminiscent of the cuisine that has made him world famous. It will be interesting to see and follow the evolution for as long as he stays in Malta but on this summer’s showing, it would not be a surprise if Malta ends up with a two Michelin star restaurant sooner rather than later.
On the other hand, Jonathan Brincat with his Hobz biz-zejt 2.0 is also playing with our memories of what is most quintessentially Maltese. Nothing shouts of Malta more than bread that is served with tomatoes, olive oil, basil, tuna, olives. At the beach, as a lunch, as an appetiser while enjoying a beer, it may be one of the few things that unites the Maltese which have a tendency to see all things as ‘us’ and ‘them’.
The new version is served in two different dishes. The first showcases the Maltese tomato often lauded with pride but often mishandled or not treated with the respect it deserves. The second serves a superb tuna belly (rarely served in restaurants) with sea urchin, samphire and radish to add freshness.
There were other dishes of note, from the the wreck fish with a whey sauce, clams and fermented capers which to a perfectly executed risotto with veal tongue and aged balsamic vinegar just to mention two dishes.
Over the past months there was also news that Bahia, another Michelin star restaurant in the little village of Lija would be moving to the Corinthia in Attard as part of a refurbishment of the Villa. It is likely that this will give the talented team led by chef Tyrone Mizzi more space to flourish.
For a small country of just over 500,000 people, the island can boast of five 1 Michelin star restaurants. That’s no mean feat. The remaing two Michelin star restaurants are De Mondion and Grain by chefs Kevin Bonello and Victor Borg.
Below the radar but also performing very solidly are the Schiavone brothers mentioned above. Tartarun has by far established itself as the fish restaurant to visit on the island. If you are there, you would do well to ask for their tasting menu.
The Golden Fork by female chef Letizia Vella is also hitting the right notes. Leitizia is revisiting a number of local dishes in her restaurant which she opened in 2019. She’s interned at The Fat Duck and also served as Chef de Partie at Dinner by Heston. It is clearly one of the restaurants to watch together with another relatively new restaurant Rebekah’s by chef Andrew Vella. The latter spent time with chef Yves Mattagne, formerly of Sea Grill in Brussels.
Another one worth following is Rafel Sammut a chef and activist who you are likely to find either in Briju’s kitchen, feeding the poor with his Victory Kitchen soup kitchen project or swimming long distances to raise funds for charity. At Briju, Rafel has taken the constraints of local produce and location (his restaurant is bang in Malta’s notorious red light district) and turned them into his favour. It is one of those places you’d want to return to time and time again.
On the sister island, Gozo, Paul Buttigieg continues to hit the right notes with It-Tmun in Mgarr which remains one of my favourite spots on the island.
Good bread has been a constant at many of these restaurants and while the traditional Maltese hobza has a reputation for being good, it is the sourdough bread made either by Crumb Crew Bakery or Good Stuff Malta that have really stolen the show.
Then there is also the work being carried out by Keith Abela of Natural Preserves Malta. This chef turned forager has a spectacular knowledge of produce and local ingredients and he is helping to deliver such produce to some of the top restaurants on the island. Today, he lectures and researches local ingredients and is also experimenting with goat cheese production trying to help the very few goat’s milk farmers that remain.
It is through the work of these chefs who are trying to build an ecosystem that values the work of local producers and farmers that Malta’s culinary scene can improve. There is of course a lot of work that still remains to be done. But Malta’s culinary journey is just starting. And that journey is looking extremely promising.