"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?"