"They both looked at me and said, 'You've got to be kidding,'" Oliver recalls.
They had every right to be stunned. More than ten years had passed since Khoury and Crooks had opened one of the first new downtown restaurants in decades, City Seen, in the very same space. That hip urban eatery was way ahead of its time, and it closed in 1997. The pretty dining room sat empty until another restaurant, Mezzaluna, took over the venue three years later, but it didn't last, either.
In addition to the location's unlucky past, there were plenty of current obstacles -- nearby cross streets closed because of downtown construction, and the monolithic Jones Store across the street slated for demolition. But Oliver is optimistic that her two-month-old Mango Room is the right concept in the right place at the right time.
I am, too -- even though I'm usually cynical about such things. But the Mango Room is one of the best things to happen downtown since the opening of the glam new library. Loft dwellers have already discovered the place; now Oliver needs to lure midtowners and suburbanites. The only thing the Mango Room lacks is a lot of hungry customers.
There's no other place in the metro quite like it. Oliver and her chef (and fiancé) Ian Hockenberger have wedded traditional Southern soul food with tropical Caribbean cuisine, and it's a comfortable coupling. The dining room, now sporting lemon-yellow walls, sleek ebony banquettes and tables draped in black linens, was a beacon for Lou Jane and me after we parked nearly a block away and trudged through a recent pouring rain to get into the place.
"After all that rain, I need a dry martini," Lou Jane said, wearily dropping into one of the booths.
Our server, husky-voiced David (his delivery was one-part Harvey Fierstein, two parts Tallulah Bankhead), talked Lou Jane out of a dry martini and into a sweet one. She was game for a Bob MarleyTini made with pineapple, coconut and mango liqueurs and served in a chilled, stainless-steel container that looked a bit like a racing trophy. Maybe it was, because after a few sips, her appetite was off and running and she was ready for some appetizers.
She ordered each of the Jamaican patties: one pork, one beef and one vegetarian, the latter filled with God only knows what but delicious under a sweet, doughy crust. (I later discovered that the filling was a kind of potato, onion and garlic mush.) Even better was a crispy, paper-thin flatbread scattered with pieces of jerk chicken, herbed goat cheese, roasted tomatoes, corn and cilantro.
Barely a handful of customers were in the Mango Room that soggy night, which allowed David plenty of time to regale us with hilarious stories about his previous life as an airline attendant, his other restaurant jobs and his opinions about the Mango Room's food. "It's fabulous!" he extolled, rolling his eyes to heaven. "You'll adore the pork chop."
I'm always up for food that's worthy of adoration, so I ordered the pork chop after Lou Jane decided on the jerk oxtails. And the ten side dishes on the menu sounded so good, I wanted to order all of them, but she curbed my enthusiasm: "You do want dessert later, dear, don't you?"
The giant, brined chop had been grilled until the surface was a perfect, juicy amber, and it was sided by a fat wedge of baked macaroni and cheese, crispy on the outside but gooey on the inside, and fresh green beans dipped into a light tempura batter and fried into crunchy "bundles." Lou Jane's succulent oxtails were wonderful, too, though the accompanying sautéed greens were fiercely bitter. (They did make a nice counterpoint to the coy sweetness of the oxtails' rich, mahogany glaze.)
Maybe it was the Rev. Al Green's vocals over the sound system afterward, but I felt I was having a religious experience when the hot mango cobbler arrived. The soft chunks of mango bubbled under a doughy cinnamon crust, covered by a discreetly spiced cayenne-caramel sauce.
A few nights later, I brought Bob, Carol Ann and David the Psychic for a dinner with Six Degrees of Separation overtones. Carol Ann did a stint at Grand Street before Thelma took a job there, and Bob recognized our server, Keith, from when they worked together at the Hyatt 25 years ago. David just got good vibes from the place and used his sensory (rather than his psychic) powers to comment on the food -- starting with the basket of crumbly sweet-potato corn muffins. (I might note that blabby David the Server didn't bring us any muffins on my earlier visit.)
"There's a lot of cinnamon in these muffins," David said solemnly.
The pronouncement seemed to have mystical overtones -- did cinnamon have another meaning, Carol Ann wondered, like an omen of a spicy romance? -- but David was rather quiet until our server brought out the appetizers and David bit into a crunchy fried jambalaya rice ball made with risotto, peppers and spicy sausage.
"I taste cumin," was all he said.
I did, too, and I was crazy for those big, fat balls. All of us were impressed by chef Hockenberg's spin on crab cakes, which were enormous and crunchy with chopped cashews. Sadly, though, our skewers of tamarind-brined grilled pork were shockingly tough.
When it came time for entrées, chicken-loving Bob noted the modest pieces of bird on his plate. They might have been small, but they were plump and juicy under a crackly cornmeal breading. Carol Ann loved the firm, oven-roasted hunk of pan-seared halibut crusted with sliced plantain. David, perhaps channeling my dinner from a previous visit, insisted on having the pork chop. He dug the chop but dissed the volume on the reggae-ish music. "It's jarringly loud," he said.
I barely heard it, I was so entranced by that night's dinner special, a plate of satiny scallops in a brown butter sauce.
At one point, David had a flashback to an earlier meal -- decades earlier -- in this same location. "This is where Kresge's used to be," he said. "I sat at a counter practically on this spot and had a fabulous hot dog and a root beer."
There's no root beer at the Mango Room, but dark beer has been baked into the thick slab of gingerbread cake, served warm and slathered with an orange-marmalade glaze. It wasn't as spectacular as the mango cobbler -- or the mysterious Key-lime tartlet (the pastry is hot; the custard is cold) served with a tiny "strawberry milkshake" in an espresso cup that can be poured over the tart or knocked back like a drink. And one could have hallucinations after a few bites of the fudgy slab of chocolate cake.
At one point, I thought I was seeing a yellowish aura around Carol Ann's head. Until then, I had never believed in that phenomenon, but maybe ...
"There are yellow light bulbs in all the fixtures," Carol Ann explained. "They give all of us a mango glow."
Not unlike the one we had after leaving the place.