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The clientele varies from night to night, as does the mood. "It's like having a party every night," Barbara says. "The chemistry comes from who shows up and who doesn't."
I played a little chemistry experiment myself one night, dining with my socialite friend Marilyn and laid-back jazz singer Queen Bey. The women got along famously once Marilyn nixed the tiny booth that had been selected for us ("Darling, that table isn't big enough for my purse," she growled at the hostess) and insisted that two small tables in the center of the room be pushed together. Our dark-eyed waiter -- "Honey, he looks just like Rob Lowe," Queen Bey cooed -- fussed over the duo as if they were royalty. Both ladies behaved accordingly.
Happily, the food from Mano's kitchen is fit for, well, queens. (On that note, bitchy Ned himself still raves about the cassoulet, heaped with thick chunks of garlic-lamb sausage.) Even Marie Antoinette would have lost her head trying to choose from the two menus. There's a paper handout listing hot and cold appetizers, salads and four standard bistro dinners (including cassoulet and bouillabaisse), but the "real" menu is written on a narrow chalkboard. The latter squeezes as many as twenty different daily specials onto the board in such a dainty printed hand that I longed for a telescope. The specials were hieroglyphs to my nearsighted dinner companions, so I attempted to read each dish aloud, with unintentionally comic results.
"Did you say something about duck?" asked Queen Bey. "I'll have that."
I could say a lot more about that duck, too; it was the best roasted fowl I've had in a long time, fragrant with cloves and cinnamon, star anise and juniper. The mahogany skin crackled, and the flesh was moist and gorgeously tender. We shared the dish, just as we had shared a fat, delectably crunchy crab cake -- which came floating on a buttery, sable-colored sauce lightly flavored with a hint of horseradish -- and a massive bowl of shiny Prince Edward Island mussels (enough to feed three) steamed in white wine and cream with just a hint of brassy mustard. All three of us greedily devoured a tower of tender langoustine perched on a salad of cool mango and roasted red peppers.
Marilyn had chosen appetizers as her dinner: a bowl of salt cod whipped together with potatoes, garlic and olive oil (it looked like wallpaper paste but tasted divine) and a crêpe filled with tiny, moist sea scallops and sautéed spinach. I refused to share my dinner, a poached rabbit loin stuffed with creamy Boursin cheese, spinach and slices of surprisingly robust oyster mushrooms, then pan-seared and sliced into delicate circles. It was delicious and as elegantly arranged as a Renoir canvas.
On another night, I returned with my friend Bob in tow, and we dined as sumptuously as any of the Bourbon kings. We began with a plate of pan-seared sausages and bread, then dipped even more bread into the melted garlic butter that accompanied the plump baked escargot (after we'd plucked them from their shells and devoured them tout de suite). We could have stopped right there, but we went on to accept the challenge of that night's beef special, a hunk of juicy strip steak prepared Argentine-style: grilled with rock salt, lots of garlic, fresh rosemary and thyme, and served alongside a heaping mound of crispy pommes frites. It was my idea of a diet meal, something moderate and light before tackling several of chef James Landis' breathtaking pastries: airy puffs of profiteroles bursting at the seams with vanilla ice cream and drenched in bittersweet chocolate sauce, a fluffy mound of cinnamon-scented bread pudding, a silken crème brûlée delicately flavored with lavender and tucked under an amber shell of caramelized sugar.