In truth this isn’t an ancient plot cultivated and tended by legendary Mediterranean traders, but the land does belong to the celebrated Hotel Phoenicia in Malta.
All good chefs will agree that freshness is key to good dishes. That philosophy cuts across all ethnic culinary persuasions. Malta has a climate that any keen gardener would envy. It is typically Mediterranean, with weather that one would expect, the only passing problematic element being the windy season that only lasts a month or so. That breeze, strong at times, might cause worry to those tending plants, but it is refreshing to the sun-weary tourist.
Chef Saul Halevi hails from Italy but has worked all over the world. He is passionate about fresh produce and indeed local produce. It doesn’t come much more local than 100 metres from the kitchen of the Phoenicia Hotel. Guests can try to guess what might be on the menu as they watch the chefs pick vegetables at 5pm that will be gracing a plate at 7.
Any keen gardener would appreciate a tour of these terraces. There are citrus fruit trees with lemons still hanging from top branches even in late April. At this time of year the tomato seedlings have been planted out – at least the first rows. Saul is staggering the crop this year to avoid a glut. There are still plenty of broad beans with bursting pods of grey-green legumes. The plot offers the promise of pumpkins, courgettes and aubergines. Herbs are an essential ingredient and Saul is particularly proud of various types of mint, and a patch of the celebrated Sicilian oregano.
A sunken herb garden?
Parts of the garden are quite new. Saul has acquired the expanded area by stealth. His original suggestion was for the incorporation of just a few square metres, but that has grown slowly over the months. He has been forbidden to go near the swimming pool that he would likely turn into a sunken herb garden.
The guest at the Phoenicia will be spoilt for food and indeed styles of food. The large, beautiful and imposing Phoenix restaurant boasts all the features of a classic hotel: high moulded ceilings, crisp linen, a regiment of waiting staff, and views. The food, at least from my experience of a short stay, is traditional and Mediterranean. The vegetables are fresh, as one would expect, and the selection of meat is wide, and cooked with thought and inspiration.
Chef Saul is mindful of the regulars who frequent the restaurant and wants to give them what they crave, which is usually good seasonal food and plenty of it. The desserts and baked goods here might not come from the garden but they are for which to die. Malta has a great baking tradition and it’s showcased in the sweet cakes, cookies and turnovers at this iconic hotel.
Presented with flair
The intimate restaurant of which Chef Saul is so proud is called Pegasus. This small space has the air of a French bistro but the food offered is polished, refined, and presented with flair, taking advantage of that by now expected freshness of ingredients. The fish is special and comes from specific boats that supply Saul and just a few others. Chef Halevi can tell by the weather conditions if a particular fish will be available later.
The dishes here are unique. We were offered a veritable extravaganza of vegetables, steamed fish, and pasta. Saul is something of an evangelist for delicate steaming of fish rather than frying. The lobster ravioli was made with black squid ink which gave the dish great visual impact …almost as much as did the bread that was as black as coal and also made with that squid ink.
Some say that Maltese restaurants have The Phoenicia as a benchmark for excellence. It has cultivated that reputation over decades and just as carefully as Chef Saul Halevi now tends its kitchen garden. It seems that quality never goes out of fashion.
Floriana – FRN1478
Tel: (+356) 21 225 241
Fax: (+356) 21 235 254
UK freephone number: 0800 8620025
Tel: (+356) 2291 1023
Fax: (+356) 2125 0461
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018