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One time, at the tavern

Manakis
Spinola Bay
St Julian’s
Tel: 2138 3572

Food: 6/10
Service: 5/10
Ambience: 8/10
Value: 6/10
Overall: 6/10

I do so many things for the wrong reason that I’ve stopped having a reason for doing practically anything. Last time I was abroad, for instance, I travelled three hours in the wrong direction at a mind-boggling speed to spend a night in a hotel that had collaborated with an artist I happen to like.

My intent was to see this hotel and understand how the artist had woven his work into what is an essentially-functional building. The reason I actually bothered travelling there was that I was certain there was more to the city that I could discover and that the place was known for a number of unique culinary specialities.

In the end, I loved the art but I spent an average of five hours inside a hotel, mostly with my eyes closed, so the intent had been just barely fulfilled. The city fed me exceptionally well though, so, irrespective of the reason for my being there, I left with many a memorable experience. This week there was an earthquake in the same city and the disaster it left in its wake is still being estimated. I’d have felt foolish explaining my reason for being there to the rescue guys had my travel plans been pushed back a couple of weeks.

This got me thinking, however. I have been this foolish since childhood. Aged no more than 10, as soon as I heard we were sailing all the way to Greece, I immediately asked if we’d be going to Corfu. I’d never seen the island and there was no internet to help feed my curiosity. The insistence was based on my having devoured Gerald Durrell’s books from his time there and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. We got to explore the island and, more importantly, to eat incredible food every day. No matter what leads me anywhere, it’s my stomach that helps me form the most lasting memories.

More recently, I was speaking to a man who lives in Cardiff. I had to admit that I’ve been meaning to visit because, of all the embarrassing reasons I could cite, most of Doctor Who is filmed there and I wanted to tour the locations. Surprisingly, he bubbled in enthusiasm and we took off on a nerdy tangent that I won’t bore you with but then I remembered that no matter the reason for visiting, I’d need to eat. I asked about food and, to be frank, wasn’t impressed enough by his reply to convince me to visit. ‘Is it poor form to travel to Wales with a packed lunch?’, I mused, as he listed his favourite Doctors all the way since 1963.

I picked a restaurant for what could be construed the wrong reason last week. It was one of the few that wasn’t rammed with TVs and showing football with the commentary volume turned all the way up. I don’t dislike football. I just don’t follow it so, given a choice, I would rather have dinner without unsolicited sounds in the background.

The restaurant, a new one that calls itself a Greek taverna, is located just beneath the place where the only Greek restaurant in Malta was for a very long time. I doubt this is a coincidence and, if it isn’t, I feel I’m in good company when it comes to random reasons for taking important decisions.

It is just on the water’s edge in Spinola Bay and makes for an idyllic spot for an evening meal. We turned up at 8 and the sun hadn’t set so we were happy that a table on the outside terrace was being vacated. The young lady, whom I presumed was running the front of house that night, told us they’d need a couple of minutes to prepare it and, true to her word, we were seated quite quickly.

We were served by the other young lady on the team and were very lucky to have her take care of us all evening. She’s been trained in the art of keeping the pace high while never appearing hurried and has a knack of making all her patrons feel like they’re the only ones in the restaurant.

Her colleagues were nothing like her. I watched as a well-intended and bumbling young man performed a comedic routine that John Cleese would have wished he’d written himself. The patrons at the table he was serving were admirable at their ability to choke their chuckles and even helped him out when he needed a hand. At one point, he enlisted the assistance of another young man and things took a turn for the funnier. Had we been on the Ionian islands three decades ago, this would have been perfectly normal but I doubt it is what Manakis is going for.

I can’t think of too many reasons to return

The tasting menu sounded like good value but it is one of those set menus that’s preset rather than offering seasonal or daily variation so I thought I’d make my own choices. It was easy enough for me, because my favourites from my forays around the Ionians as a child and a teenager, and the dishes I ate subsequently when visiting Greece and Cyprus as an adult, are on the menu.

A couple of mezzes to start with would do so we picked the taramosalata, tzatziki, and melitzanosalata. To follow I was dead set on the lamb chops and the better half wanted to try their moussaka, so our selection would satisfy two curiosities at once.

We were meant to go out later and meet some friends for a chat over a bottle of wine so we played safe and ordered a glass of whatever Greek wine they served that way. Ten minutes later we had a basket of bread and pitta at table and that was as far as our food went for a good while.

Half an hour into our visit, three bowls of dips turned up. One does not prepare dips to order so I was guessing the wait was a stalling tactic by the kitchen. In any case, we tucked in. The pitta, presumably warmed up before it was served, had turned to rubber so we left it there and ate the bread instead.

The tzatziki, a cucumber and garlic dip with plenty of mint, was refreshing and tasty and by far the best of the trio. This was followed by the melitzanosalata, a mashed aubergine dip with olive oil and lemon juice, that was pretty decent. I like the heavy-handed approach to lemon that the Greek variety of this dip employs, a dish that changes from the Balkans all the way to North Africa. Manakis take a very neutral approach so there is little more than aubergine on the palate.

The taramosalata, a salted and cured mash of fish roes, olive oil, lemon, and bread, was nothing like the Greek variant. I could hardly taste the fish and the base was creamy so it was essentially a pink, slightly insipid, cheese. I left most of it behind.

At 10 o’clock, after having been seated for two hours, I decided I’d ask for the bill for the mezzes and eat something quick on the way to my next engagement. Sitting down for so long at dinner time with no more than three dips for food and comical waiters for entertainment is not my idea of a pleasant evening out.

The manager said she’d check on our order and let us know where it was at. It was, in fact, on its way to our table so our wait was finally over. My lamb chops were grilled and served on top of more melitzanosalata and punctuated with crumbled feta. I didn’t get any of the chargrilled flavour but the cooking temperature was spot on and the portion size was just right. It was served with a simple salad that’s a little overdressed and has the neat addition of pomegranate as well as a bowl of chips. It is a pleasant, if unremarkable, dish that would benefit from a much higher temperature charcoal grill and a more present lemon and olive oil dressing.

The moussaka is served in the terracotta bowl that it’s baked in, a lovely touch for a moussaka. The béchamel layer on top takes over and there’s much less aubergine than the Greek variant but it was by far the most enjoyable dish of the evening.

As soon as I’d finished my food I asked for the bill and paid €80 for what was a promptly forgettable meal. I pondered, as I walked around the little bay, that Greek cooking is what Mediterranean food is all about. In a land of pasta and pizza and salmon steaks, this could be the place to go to for dinner by the sea. As it is, I can’t think of too many reasons to return.

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