‘A taste for quality is key’

Contessa Head Chef Daniel Debattista makes good on this promise with a delectable menu based on local produce.
Head Chef Daniel Debattista at Phoenicia’s Contessa. Photo: Sandor Venczel

    The recently opened Contessa, the new flagship restaurant at The Phoenicia Malta, has already made waves by snapping up multiple awards within a few weeks of its opening in December.

    As fate would have it, I was actually having dinner at the restaurant when the news came in that the restaurant had just won the Two Silver Spoons award, with Head Chef Daniel Debattista himself nabbing the WRMC-Malta Outstanding Top Chef Award. This meant that I could literally gauge just how well-deserved the awards are right there, on the spot.

    Let’s start with the basics. Chef Daniel describes the Contessa’s culinary ethos as “accessible luxury, not only for the opulent”. Inspired by European classics and driven by local and Mediterranean produce, the menu lives up to the claim with very fair market prices that compete extremely well with other fine-dining restaurants.

    “The aim was to introduce a fresh, young, temporary yet luxurious space where our guests can enjoy and experience our offerings anytime throughout the day. Inspired by our vast gardens, we also wanted to enhance our guest experiences by more interaction and personalisation. As a team, and with the owner’s direction and vision, Contessa was born,” Chef Daniel explains.

    One of the biggest attractions is undoubtedly the Tableside Theatre concept, which Chef says is no novelty to the Phoenicia Malta, having already been part of the dining scene. It was decided to keep to this tradition in respect of the hotel’s culinary heritage, while enhancing the style within the service. The result is a fleet of gorgeous trolleys that are as discreet as they are functional, blending perfectly with the décor. Various parts of the meal are prepared at table, such as the Tiramisu, or some of the pasta dishes.

    I’m naturally curious about the awards and the unique elements that may have contributed to these achievements. Chef’s reply is characteristically humble, and he simply replies that “we are all as good as our teams, and at The Phoenicia Malta indeed we do have a great team! Nevertheless, persistence, leadership, and a taste for quality are key”. I turn the topic back to food, which is clearly where he enjoys shining. How does the menu balance innovation with traditional Southern Mediterranean flavours?

    Photo: Mark Soler

    “We do favour of our traditional inspirations, and take a less is more. The innovation is balanced, and only works because we stay true and respect our ingredients. We cannot deny the fact of Malta’s positioning in the Mediterranean, and the influences we have adopted from our Italian neighbours,” he tells me.

    This ties in with the inspiration behind one of Contessa’s signature dishes and the story it tells about Maltese culture. Chef fondly describes how often, pasta dishes were staples of the daily local diet, often presented in a bowl, in the middle of a table, where family and friends would enjoy helping themselves to the servings.

    “We decided to use a very special ingredient of our waters, the local red prawns ‘Rossi’, lightly cooked in Gozitan EVOO, paired simply with spaghetti, and you have yourself a Spaghettata. We serve this for two and tableside presented,” he tells me.

    Locally-sourced ingredients are a point of pride, and the first choice whenever available, of quality or in season. This is not simply for the purposes of quality dinning but also in keeping with the sustainable values of Contessa.

    “Moreover, I firmly believe that high-end dining experiences do not always have to be lavish, extravagant or expensive. Quality ingredients, high levels of service, comfort, and personalisation are key factors,” he insists.

    Finally, for someone visiting Contessa for the first time, what is the one dish he would recommend they must try and why? His reply is swift: “Our Seafood Plateau, an ode to the love of sharing and seafood.”

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