Manta Ray

Nathan is cautious with money. In no way is this meant as criticism, I wish I was more like him. He doesn’t like to spend it on food and drink outside the home, it’s how he was brought up. He told me last week that he buys still water because it’s cheaper than fizzy. You may think buying water at all is a display of reckless extravagance, but tap water in Israel has a distinct taste that he, or I, have yet to acquire.

So I think it was a wonderful, generous gesture, brave in its way, to invite Rufina, Alberto, Ben and me to dinner at a smart and expensive restaurant to celebrate, I don’t know, completing five months learning Hebrew at the ulpan, knowing each other, being here, take your pick. Ben is his boyfriend of over twenty years and lives mostly in Palma, on Majorca. Alberto is returning to Rome as soon as he can sublet his apartment. Rufina may spend the rest of the summer with her husband in Kazakhstan. I will return to London later in the year, and Nathan will live his life flying between Frankfurt and Palma. We may be the definition of rootless cosmopolitans, citizens of the world.

It is one of Nathan’s jokes that I’m more German than actual Germans, and I arrive exactly on time. I have disappointed myself, I intended to be five minutes early, but the walk along the seafront took a little longer than I’d expected. 

Rufina is not German. She is from Uzbekistan and always late. She, somehow, becomes upset when you point this out to her. Tonight she is heroically late, Naomi Campbell late. She arrives with Alberto forty five minutes after the rest of us, yet none of us mention it. We pretend we aren’t fuming and, actually, this works. We soon start talking and laughing about the ulpan, the people we’ve met there, and all the outrageous things Shlomit, our teacher, said. 

Shlomit uses national stereotypes for humour: she’d ask me about the queen, for instance, or look wistful at the thought of Diana, who she prefers to Camilla. She once asked me, with a moue of distaste, if the English really put cold milk in our tea, bemused by such wilfulness. The other day she called Nathan a fascist, because he is German. She meant it as a joke, I’m sure, but he didn’t appreciate it.

A large tray of mezze arrived, the handsome waiter giving the price for each as he was describing them. Manta Ray’s speciality is fish and seafood; there was octopus with beans, two types of cervice, calamari with nectarine and, either, apple or kohl rabi. I’m not sure that worked. Israelis seem to like their summer fruit unripe and hard. There were other plates. It all looked pretty good.

By the time our mains came I’d had enough rosé to flirt with the waiter and we were all in a good mood again. I don’t think the menu has changed since the last time I ate here, three or four years ago. It’s international modern; blue bream with red rice, pineapple and chilli butter, sea bass with gnocchi, eggplant and cashew, shrimp and calamari with figs, parmesan and pear sauce. I wonder, really, if Manta Ray tries harder than it needs to.

I had croaker, a deep-sea fish I hadn’t heard of before, with yellow lentils and mash. Its flesh was meaty and flaked nicely. Someone had something that came with a small saucepan of the same mash. The mash was a smash, yellow with butter. It was so smooth someone must have worked hard passing it through a sieve. I could have eaten a barrel of it.

We didn’t really want dessert, but we said yes to one to share. It was a dark sphere, roughly the size of a cricket ball, like a model of the Death Star, maybe. I was the first in, cracking the crisp surface like an egg with my spoon. It was full of a very tasty chocolate mousse, and rich enough to satisfy all of us. We watched the sun set over the sea.

We walked back along the boardwalk, enjoying the night. Rufina, whose husband has been working away for weeks, she has urges, nudges me at each shirtless jogger that passes, shiny with exertion. There are many handsome men in Tel Aviv, real beauties. She says they’re more attractive than the women. There is some truth in this, but I’d never dare say it.

Today’s word: tuh-buch – chef – טבח

Manta Ray, with jogger. Photo by Simon Wilder

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