Esenzi, Malta asserts its authority

A preview of Mark Weingard’s and Tim Butler’s new project. A restaurant that could transform the island republic

02-07-2018

The brigade that cooked a couple of weeks ago at Verdala Palace in Malta. This was a preview of Mark Weingard’s restaurant Esenzi, inside Iniala. The resort is to open in January 2019. Tim Butler (third from the left) is the American chef from restaurant Eat Me in Bangkok, 33rd in the 50Best Asia, and at Iniala hotel in Phuket, also in Thailand

We first visited Malta in September 2007. A few months after it entered the European Union, the gastronomic scene of the archipelago was still as arid as most of its land: patrons on the islands were too busy stuffing the teenage students who came here to study English. Or preparing mushed food that would suit the elderly’s teeth.

The wine industry was livelier, with a small group of producers – led by Meridana Wines, recently acquired by the Antinori family – who started to break the traditional lack of interest of the British for a product whose regulations, until not too many years ago, admitted the use of coloured paper to add white or red nuances.

The most interesting restaurant, among those that have started to liven up Malta over the past decade, is still to open. This will happen in January, on the edge of the fortifications of Valletta, a scenic view of the port and of Fort Saint Angelo opposite. This was a strong desire of Mark Weingard, a British entrepreneur with a film-like life. He survived three of the most tragic episodes of the past 20 years: 9/11 in New York, the 2002 bomb in Bali, the 2004 tsunami in the Pacific Ocean. In the attack in Indonesia, however, he lost his fiancée Annika Linden. The episode inspired Weingard to become a philanthropist, funding different organisations including the Malta Community Chest Fund Foundation, and an endless list of admirable projects.

Patron Mark Weingard with renderings of the project, still a building site. Behind him, Fort Saint Angelo 

Patron Mark Weingard with renderings of the project, still a building site. Behind him, Fort Saint Angelo 

The future façade of the Iniala hotel, the location of restaurant Esenzi

The future façade of the Iniala hotel, the location of restaurant Esenzi

The view from the back of the hotel

The view from the back of the hotel

The restaurant’s name will be Esenzi and it will be located inside the Iniala hotel, a work in progress site replacing an old bank: it will have 23 suites, of which 5 with swimming pool. Prices will range between 900 and 3000 euros per night. Iniala is the same name given the other luxury villas owned in Phuket, Thailand. Here, 7 years ago, Weingard met the chef who will direct the establishment in Malta: Tim Butler, who is already at the helm of restaurant Eat Me in Bangkok, currently 33rd in the 2018 World’s 50Best Asia, and of the restaurant offer of the same site in Phuket.

Butler, from Portland, in Maine, recently turned 40. Before arriving in Asia, he learnt the ropes in some of the most iconic restaurants in his country, fromMarcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit to Italian Michael Cimarusti’s Providence in Los Angeles, as well as Daniel Bouloud’s Daniel and Alto, in the Big Apple. Here he met his wife to be, from Thailand, and that’s why he decided to move to another continent 12 years ago.

Eat me is an imperative that perfectly fits the dishes served at the restaurant on Thanom Silom in Bangkok. They serve as many as 150 guests per day, which is remarkable given they’re only open in the evening. The place explores Thai raw materials, while using techniques and other ingredients from the rest of the world. The food at Esenzi in Malta will also be glocal, as we found out during a preview-dinner served at Verdala Palace, the summer residence of the president of Malta Marie Louise Coleiro Preca.

The table set at Verdala Palace

The table set at Verdala Palace

Chef Tim Butler, 40 

Chef Tim Butler, 40 

Bretton Fabien Etienne, sommelier

Bretton Fabien Etienne, sommelier

This time the centre of gravity has moved from the sea in front of the Andaman Islands, to the Mare Nostrum. This shift has already thrilled the chef: «I can’t wait to test myself with the Mediterranean Sea», he says while we roam around the island, on a perfectly breezy day, «Over there, there’s nothing like the red prawns and rockfish to be found here. On the other hand, we are better equipped with seafood and squid. Here, however, we can speak of seasonal products; in Thailand there are no seasons. Culinary speaking, it will be like moving from one planet to another».

To delight the future 40 guests, Butler is networking with fishermen and most of all farmers on Malta, which traditionally stands out more for its vegetable and meat recipes than for its seafood. Once a month, he’ll come to direct executive chef John Becker, who will stay here for 12 months in a row.

Oyster with sake ice, lime and coriander, a dish by Butler in the menu in Bangkok and, as of January, also available in Malta

Oyster with sake ice, lime and coriander, a dish by Butler in the menu in Bangkok and, as of January, also available in Malta

Squid with brandade, bellota chorizo and piperade, a dish prepared at the preview dinner a couple of weeks ago 

Squid with brandade, bellota chorizo and piperade, a dish prepared at the preview dinner a couple of weeks ago 

Of course there’s an Italian influence: Orecchiette with blue lobster, 'nduja and Thai chili

Of course there’s an Italian influence: Orecchiette with blue lobster, 'nduja and Thai chili

Young Bretton sommelier Fabien Etienneis in charge of the wine list. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge which he’s shown at length at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and at Azurmendi, as well as at Aziamendi in Phuket, where he’s now been replaced by Butlerhimself.

Orthodoxy and natural wine will coexist in a wine list of the restaurant which, as Weingard admitted, aims to get into the «World’s 50Best in five years’ time». Were this to happen in Malta, it would be exceptional.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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