Photos: Sandor Venczel & Mark Soler.
The Phoenicia Malta has always reminded me of a majestic grand dame watching over the capital, so it’s fitting that the hotel’s reimagined flagship restaurant should be christened Contessa. Softly launched just before Christmas, the restaurant has transformed the Phoenicia’s iconic terrace into a lush conservatory, a botanically-themed haven to be enjoyed all year round, whatever the weather.
At least, that’s what the Phoenicia’s Contessa restaurant promises on the gorgeously designed website. I’m here to put these claims to the test, having been invited to the official press launch. It’s a fresh day in January and, though climate change has regaled us with a relatively mild winter, it’s still not quite the weather to dine on the terrace. I’m curious to see if Phoenicia really has pulled this off.
Pre-dinner, a group of familiar faces meets up at the indoor bar for drinks. Phones are at the ready, those among us whose living it is to capture every breathing moment on Instagram primed to be the first to go live. I’m hanging back, sipping my Prosecco and taking notes on my phone, which always weirds the IG gang out.
When the grand reveal happens, it more than justifies all the reels and stories that are hitting the socials, including the ones I’m spamming all my friends with. Truth is, this Contessa is a beaut. I walk onto the terrace and I’m transported to a completely different world. The advantage of a glass conservatory includes 180 degree views across… well, everywhere. The Phoenicia’s lush gardens, the walkway into Valletta with Grand Harbour in the distance, the majestic parish church in Floriana and even Msida creek.
Yet, the vibe is warm – as is the temperature, no small thanks to the glass-encased fire pits that are set up across the entire space. These pits add more than just physical comfort, the orange flames dancing off the glass to create a hypnotic shimmer. Contessa, damn that’s a strong opening.
Contessa restaurant – introducing tableside theatre
Still, the proof’s in the pudding, to use a decidedly pedestrian idiom, even though there’s nothing pedestrian about the menu at Contessa.
The theme is described as high-end Southern Mediterranean Cuisine. I hear you, could mean anything right? What it means at Contessa is a menu that makes the most of the Med’s luscious ingredients by giving them a clever twist of flavour and adding a dash of tableside theatre.
Tableside theatre has become a bit of a buzzword recently, and unfortunately it’s not always a good thing as it can easily turn into an annoyance for guests. The team at Phoenicia has wisely opted for beautifully conceived tableside trolleys that blend with the ambiance and that allow for this side of things to happen without inconveniencing other guests or overstaying their tableside welcome. But more about that later.
The menu is based on a sharing concept. Dinner at a lovely restaurant is not about stuffing your face, but about sharing, exchanging, discussing, conversing. Contessa facilitates this side of things, making it easy for us to feel like we got our money’s worth for a night out, to be crass about it.
The dishes themselves are a fusion of classic and modern. We start off with a feast of starters to share. The shrimp cocktail lettuce cups are an amusing but very delectable nod to the 80s; the calamari fritti come with a pleasing crunch and just the right touch of dressing. The veal tonnato with chicory and parmesan is a masterpiece in delicate flavours, as is the globe artichoke with aioli. The latter deserve a special mention as it’s one of those dishes that tends to suffer from extremes, being presented as either too mushy or too tough. This was neither, thanks to excellent produce and a masterful kitchen brigade.
Next up was what I like to call the ‘make or break’ dish – risotto, served with saffron and prawns. Only a handful of places serve near perfect risotto in Malta and I’m pleased to report that Contessa now joins the exclusive list (a couple of others include Noni and Corinthia Palace). The balance of the dish is exactly as it should be, the mellow sweetness of the prawns accompany each mouthful with a subtle aftertaste of saffron.
My one regret is that I over-stuffed myself with all the above, and by the time we got to the Entrecote Steak frites and the fish dish I couldn’t give them all the attention they deserve. I will, however, say this. The fish did melt in the mouth, to use a very appropriate cliché. And the meat was perfection.
We closed off with a cherry pannacotta that even those on the table who usually eschew dessert were raving about. And then, it was time for some more table theatre with tiramisu being prepared right there and then. Great fun to watch, with the result being somewhat different to the usual tiramisu, softer, creamier and with a stronger coffee kick due to its freshness. Heaven.
Phoenicia’s Contessa – my verdict
It may amuse you to know that Contessa is named in honour of Countess Strickland, who co-founded the Phoenicia Hotel in 1947. All I can say is they do her memory full justice. The kitchen brigade, led by Executive Chef Daniel Debattista has done a superb job of helping the former Phoenix rise from the ashes in this new iteration.
Contessa should have no difficulty establishing itself as one of the leaders on the Valletta circuit. Will I go back and will the bill be worth the experience? Yes and yes. Prices are very much in line with some of the city’s lesser offerings, so kudos to general manager Robyn Pratt for keeping Contessa eminently accessible as a lovely treat.
Incidentally, on the evening we were being hosted, Contessa won the Two Silver Spoons award, while Chef Daniel Debattista scooped up the WRMC-Malta Outstanding Top Chef Award. Clearly, I’m not the only one to believe that Contessa deserves all the accolades.
My review process
Restaurant reviews are never done against payment so as to maintain independence. However, I am sometimes hosted for dinner as part of a press event. The review is always honest and based on a mix of fact and subjectivity. Food is, after all, a very emotional affair.
The factual criteria I judge on include the following:
Ramonadepares.com is an aspirational site, so I only review restaurants that I know will appeal to my readers. My readers look for ideas for a good night (or lunch/brunch) out and this is exactly what my reviews focus on. You won’t find bad reviews here – experiences that don’t measure up simply do not get published, with a polite conversation with my host and a hope of seeing improvements the next time round.
Culture vultures can also find a selection of theatre reviews. The process here is somewhat different, and negative reviews are published. This is because the purpose of such reviews is not aspirational, but is to inform readers whether a production is worth their time or not while also providing a journalistic commentary about the local theatre landscape.