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I was having dinner last week and remembered a couple of pearls of wisdom that escaped Philippe Starck’s lips while wrangling his limited command of English into submission during a talk presented to an English-speaking audience. This was almost a decade ago, and his style had the audience like a pinball. Every member went from side-splitting laughter to total confusion and into a state of sudden awe, as he forced his rapid-fire upon the room.
At one point he slipped in a side note about style. Style, he says, is what one reverts to when design has no solution to a problem. It suddenly explained a lot about spaces meant for public use that just don’t work. Giving up on design because it proves too challenging, whoever is responsible for transforming a space often blinds us with styling so we hardly notice the failure of the space to actually work.
Think of all the restaurants where this happens. The place could look good upon a quick glance, but you’re seated in an awkward position and you have hardly any room to move around. Horrible configurations have the front of house running around in circles. In instances where the food preparation or the ingredients should feature prominently, these are hidden way within a kitchen that could easily be on the other side of town.
Then there are spaces that just work. Think of the average pastizzi shop. The most efficient way of delivering food fast is across a counter. If you happen to be the one standing behind the counter, then you want quick access to the food you’re selling. The style of these places might not be fancy but they really do work well. My hero in the functional department is Andrew’s in Birkirkara. They have an incredibly functional space, even if it will never make it to the cover of an architecture magazine.
I recalled Starck’s wisdom as I was seated at a restaurant called Diar il-Bniet in Dingli. The spelling of the name is unorthodox. The location is just a little out of the way for me. And yet I’ve heard about the place from many different and unrelated sources. Something must be going on in Dingli and it should be worth exploring.
So in the company of a couple of gourmands, off we headed, flying to Dingli via Frankfurt to keep the trip short. There might be other references to Dingli being too far from civilisation for my liking. These are in-jokes, aimed at a couple of denizens of Dingli who I regularly, and jocularly, taunt. No harm is intended. Please grow a sense of humour. And other such caveats and recommendations.
In any case, we made it and I wasn’t quite prepared for what the place looks like. As a restaurant that came across as serving genuine and traditional Maltese cuisine, I had feared the worst and expected a bucketful of clichés packed into an awkward space.
Diar il-Bniet looks great on the outside and possibly even better inside. The façade has been restored, generally tidied up, and well lit. The interior has been very well planned as well, with all the functional bits made out of sturdy wood. The bar and its clever suspended ceiling in solid, unpainted wood and lighting is spot on, too.
The dining space gives way to an open kitchen at one end and a retail area on the other. This meticulously presented area is packed with attractively presented produce.
The focus is on food grown within a stone’s throw away from the restaurant itself. When in Dingli, eat local. This helps keep the menu varied, inexpensive, and very, very local.
We turned up on a Monday night and were surprised to see there was just one table left vacant after we’d been seated. The girl who greeted us, smiling warmly and quickly making sure we were all comfy, explained that they hadn’t thought they’d be busy, so they had restricted the menu to the items available as daily specials. If local cuisine had the equivalent of a bistrot, this would be it.
The focus is on food grown within a stone’s throw away from the restaurant
The menu board was brought to our table by a charming, young man. He was also helpful and polite in a manner that fit right in with the place. There is no faux-posh here. The staff’s demeanour is an efficient and enthusiastic type of politeness, welcoming in true Dingli fashion, and one that you’re certain is entirely genuine.
The board contained a list of dishes, all, I would presume, specialities of the family who runs the place or at least heavily influenced by their way of preparing their own produce. The first item on the menu, Platt tal-konbif (corned beef plate), had run out. I’d never have guessed how popular that would have been but, upon subsequent enquiry, it turns out to be quite the delicacy.
The menu went on to list Injokki bl-Irkotta (ricotta-filled gnocchi), Kusksu (broad beans and pasta soup), Kustilji tal-Majjal (pork ribs), and other Maltese dishes.
Starters weren’t a good idea because we’d been amply tipped about the generosity of the portions. So we ordered Brunġiel Mimli (stuffed aubergines), Ravjul tal-Ġbejniet (goat’s cheese ravioli), Fenek Moqli bit-Tewm (rabbit fried in garlic), and Frajjeġ tal-Pastard (cauliflower fritters).
Then we added another of the last item because we all wanted to make sure we tasted it and, having skipped a starter, needed to allay our fears about the portion sizes. What if our tip had been a dud?
We also ordered a bottle of wine. They produce their own and serve five different varietals. We somehow settled on the Merlot, distinguishable only by the colour of its capsule. All grapes are grown in the area and it appears the wine is vinified on site, too. It was pretty decent, all things considered, but I’m not sure I’ll be taking any bottles home.
We waited for a while for our food to be served, particularly because most dishes are prepared from scratch. When it was served, we realised the portion sizes would be more than we could possibly eat. I dug in with fervour, determined to send as little food back as possible, feeling a little guilty about having encouraged the order of an extra main course.
My ravjul was a very decent dish, with each one evidently handmade. The sauce was almost sweet, a factor exaggerated by the presence of quite an ample dose of fresh mint. It was good but not great.
The rabbit, on the other hand, was excellent. Tender and juicy and with a heady dose of garlic, this is the Platonic likeness of our fried rabbit tradition. This dish is served on a large, wooden board with plenty of roast potatoes, fresh bread, and an assortment of their own preserved vegetables.
Equally impressive in size was the dish of cauliflower fritters. Dipped in an egg batter, the cauliflower had been cooked through without losing its firmness or flavour.
The star of the show was the stuffed aubergine. A rather large aubergine had been halved and both halves stuffed to the brim with a minced beef filling. The whole thing had been baked, so the gently roasted skin of the aubergine gave a smoky flavour to the firm flesh it barely contained. Add a generous dose of the beefy filling and your mouth is, for a short time, a better place.
We paid €17 each, which is pretty decent value for an abundance of very fresh ingredients, expertly put together, and cheerfully served. I’m sure we could have spent even less had our hunger when we got there not been taking all decisions for us.
I’m also pretty certain that once, before my times roaming this green planet, we must have had this sort of eatery peppering our villages. Food would have been plentiful, local, and very wholesome, prices very reasonable, and the menu would have heavily depended on the crop in season.
Diar il-Bniet has recreated this very tastefully and apparently successfully. Let’s hope they’ve set the bar for more restaurants of its ilk.
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