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Food Hotel: The Phoenicia, Valletta, Malta

Food Hotel: The Phoenicia, Valletta, Malta
Martin Guttridge-Hewitt: A product of an inter-war era surge in tourism, those responsible for its construction probably weren’t best pleased when WWII delayed opening until 1947, yet that late unveiling is a fitting start for such an unrushed place.
 
It’s difficult to articulate the handsome countenance in view as you arrive at the first luxury five star built in Malta’s capital. A product of an inter-war era surge in tourism, those responsible for its construction probably weren’t best pleased when WWII delayed opening until 1947, yet that late unveiling is a fitting start for such an unrushed place.  
 
Situated a stone’s throw from Valletta’s entrance gates, the hustle and bustle of this ancient town- packed with beautiful houses, grand churches and several millennia worth of stories- slowly fades as you walk down the Phoenicia’s palm-lined drive. A residence frequented by heads of state and celebrities for over half a century, despite the genuinely affordable rates its immediate sense of welcome is matched by an all-too rare atmosphere of relaxed, exotic opulence.
 
A genuine treasure, packed with character, its sleek art deco entrance opens into a piano bar worthy of Hercule Poirot’s aperitif, in turn leading through to a dining room with terrace overlooking the famous harbour. Meanwhile, 7.5 acres of mature gardens make for a wonderful stroll en route to the pool deck, which sits atop the city’s iconic, UNESCO-protected rampart walls. This is also where the herb and vegetable plots can be found.
 
The hyper-local sourcing continues in the produce that isn’t plucked from outside your room too. Seafood, a logical example given it’s a speciality here, is exposed to no more than 12-hours of air en route to your plate from four boats fishing the waters off nearby Marsaxxlokk, St. Paul’s Bay, and Gozo. And rabbit is hunted in the surrounding hills, although naturally for the finest cuts of Irish beef you need to look a bit further. Which head chef Saul Halevi, a culinary master whose experience spans half of Europe, does on behalf of visiting carnivores.  
 
“The overall concept is really easy, but it’s not that simple, let’s say. We choose three ingredients for each dish, then we try to allow each one of them to fully express itself,” he explains. “So when I’m saying there are three ingredients on the plate, they are the three best possible types of every item I can find. Perhaps it’s a meat with garnish as veg, or potato, or a fondue of some sort- something quite creative- and we’re doing say a Mediterranean, or south Italian kitchen, to put a name on it.”
 
In contrast, there’s nothing particularly straightforward about Halevi’s cottage garden concept. Quick to point out the whole thing started as a joke, the persistent epicure’s obvious passion for the job becomes clear when Sales & Marketing Director Rob Bruno interjects. “I told him we were hoteliers, not farmers. So he took up a few hours of everyone’s life, refusing to let the idea go, and we slowly started seeing some sense in the madness. So he got his little patch where he was going to grow a few things. Within a short while, it had spread out to over 4,000 square metres. Next thing we knew there was irrigation getting put in.”
 
Joking aside, there’s a lot to be said for any eatery offering people organic tomatoes, aubergines, broccoli, watermelons cabbages and more direct from the grounds. It clearly works for Phoenicia, as was proved when we took our seats in the Pegasus restaurant. Following a ‘surf & turf’ bruschette to put us on, we begin by guzzling on tuna tartare served with forest berries and sesame oil, along with Granny Smith apple pockets and local red shrimp. Flavours literally leaping into every corner of the mouth mean it’s disappointing the light and zesty Antipasti has to end. Alas, it’s not all bad news though.
 
Whilst the seared Kobe and Black Angus fillet both entice, when surrounded by the sea it would be rude not to continue our pescetarian odyssey. Especially after learning the decidedly meaty John Dory is catch of the day, served alongside seasonal greens, with calamari and fried local seafood seasoned by white truffle salt the other winning option. Our frutti di mare is all cooked to absolute perfection too- a triumph that’s obviously standard practice given the Maitre d’hotel’s talent at filleting and assured look as we take the first tell-tale bites.
 
Topped off with something of a signature desert- crepe suzette flambéed at the tableside- and washed down with plenty of Girgontina unoaked Chardonnay- produced close to Malta’s original capital, Medina (perched on a hilltop a few miles away), it’s difficult to think of a better way to get to grips with a nation’s traditional appetite. Or many criticisms of our experience for that matter, a trend that seems to run throughout the Phoenicia, hence the high level of repeat custom for both food and rooms.
 
Less a relic of a bygone era, and more proof there’s still a place for grace and attention to detail in this manic age, whether it’s a warm winter break or soaring summer vacation times have changed but evidently there’s still only one place to truly indulge on this island.  
 
Phoenicia Hotel
Rooms at Phoenicia Hotel start from just £110 per night, valid for advance online bookings. www.phoeniciamalta.com | 0800 862 0025
 
Air Malta
National carrier Air Malta operates up to 26 flights per week from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, with fares from as little as £75 one way, inclusive of taxes and 20kgs of baggage. www.airmalta.com  
 
 
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3 May 2014
By: Martin Guttridge-Hewitt
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