Time passes and with it some say also comes nostalgia. While there are certain things which take you on a trip down memory lane, there are some memories which are best forgotten. Go back to the 1980s and early 1990s and my memory of most restaurants in Malta is of them serving the same thing. With friends we remember the ubiquitous tortellini with fresh cream, ham and mushrooms or the shrimp or prawn cocktail from those retro years or a steak diane. Everyone seemed to serve the same things.
There were few speciality restaurants which were really worth the detour because they were doing something completely different. Maybe they specialised in fish or were serving French classics. At the time, these restaurants were doing something different to what was the norm. Maybe it was hard at the time to go against the current but with the benefit of time, they managed to not only survive but to be successfully copied.
What used to be specialised those days is now mainstream. That formula seems to have worked because the amount of restaurants now adopting this formula are countless. It is a formula that works both with tourists and Maltese alike. As they say, why change a winning formula?
Having left the island more than 10 years ago and visiting three to four times a year, it is always with a sense of trepidation that I eat out. Not because the dining scene is not good (if you avoid the tourist traps, you are bound to eat well in many places). But to find something that takes you out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary is far from easy.
Who do you trust to make recommendations? Where do you eat in the limited time you have visiting? Who are the trusted sources who can guide you to ‘new places’ or those which are doing something different?
Because ultimately, dining out in a restaurant should also be about experiencing something different, about finding the wow factor and asking how a certain dish was created.
In February, when we were dining out in Dranouter, Belgium on the border with France, at Kobe Desramaults’ In De Wulf which is worthy of a final visit before it closes for good at the end of this year, the Belgian chef told me that a Maltese chef had visited a week before our visit. He gave me his name and I tracked him down. Kurt Micallef, had been on two traineeships at In De Wulf and had been with a group of other trainees to eat at the restaurant for one more time given they had heard that the restaurant would be closing down. I wanted to find out more about his story (see interview with him in the coming days).
He guided me to some interesting places in Malta which are trying to experiment and do new things. One such recommendation was Black Pig Restaurant in Valletta. Now, I’ve heard about this place before and how the chef patron Andrew Borg was also working with biodynamic and organic wines which again is not usual in Malta but I had never actually visited the place.
With that recommendation, we knew we had to visit and were were lucky to find a table on the last day before he closed the restaurant for holidays. It turned out to be an excellent surprise and an experience that went beyond our expectations. Dare I say this was undoubtedly one of the best dining experiences ever in Malta.
Here was a young chef experimenting with flavours, using modern techniques but focusing on the quality of the ingredients to innovate. Innovation came not from the techniques but rather from the clever use of ingredients that are not at all common in Mediterranean cuisine but which complemented the dining experience to perfection.
The restaurant is small (20 covers) and has a menu that changes on a daily basis to focus on seasonality and local ingredients. Apart from an a la carte menu, Andrew also serves what he calls a ‘carte blanche’ menu where he is allowed to serve whatever he wants on the spur of the moment. This is highly uncommon in Malta and an approach that does not seem to be favoured by many Maltese.
On the day we visited he served burrata with summer truffle, cauliflower and ginger as an amuse bouche. This was followed by raw swordfish, grilled octopus, caviar and a cucumber jus that enhanced the freshness of the dish.
All other dishes including the John Dory served with a butter velouté, the confit of pork neck and the duck were perfectly executed. One surprise of the evening was the pre-dessert which was an excellent toasted barley ice-cream served with local raspberries marinated in olive oil. This was followed by a peach salad, chocolate, orange tuiles and a yuzu ice-cream.
What Andrew Borg is doing is really worth supporting. He is taking local and seasonal ingredients and combining them to enhance their flavours. He has an interesting and different wine list and he has also selecting his plates from a local ceramics maker.