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My dinner with Lee at Mangarosa, a brand-new Brazilian-Italian restaurant in North Beach, started out with several strikes against it. I had to circle the block three long and torturous times before spotting her on the sidewalk outside her office, making me doubt her instructions, rendering me anxious and cranky, and increasing the length of our already tedious rush-hour drive. We were, probably overambitiously, trying to squeeze a relaxing and maybe even adventurous three-course meal between the end of the workday and a movie. I was prepared to forgo dessert, if need be, but Lee has a sweet tooth, and because I already feel that, as an ovo-lacto vegetarian, her restaurant experiences are somewhat diminished, I'm loath to eliminate any possibility of pleasure from her meal. I hasten to point out that it's silly old omnivorous me, and not Lee, who feels that reading a restaurant menu, with its many dishes that don't fit into her diet, is a trial. Lee always seems to find something she's not only willing but also eager to try.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
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Cheese biscuits $5
Ricotta ravioli $16
Pork chop Milanese $17
Brazilian steak $25 for two
Ice cream with Brazil nuts $7
Open for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5 p.m. to midnight (bar menu after 11 p.m.), Friday until 1 a.m. (bar menu after midnight), Saturday from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. (bar menu after midnight), and Sunday until midnight (bar menu after 11 p.m.)
Parking: valet $9. Muni: 15, 30, 39, 41, 45, cable car
Noise level: moderate to high
I was surprised to learn that Mangarosa had been open only for a week; it had been on my restaurant radar for some time, and it felt like a well-oiled machine. The place certainly looked polished, with its hot-colored walls (rust and purple predominating), wood-columned arches separating the bar from the dining room, and large, brightly colored paintings of fruit and fish. We sat at a smallish, bare wooden table along a long banquette.
Two starters intrigued us from the list of seven titled Entrada (there were also a soup and three salads, under Sopa e Salada): the polenta soufflé, combining as it did two of my favorite words -- I've rarely met a polenta dish, whether creamy, firm, crusty, whatever, or a soufflé that I didn't like -- and the pao de queijo, described as cheese bread "Brazilian style," plus a couple glasses of wine.
The wine began to work its relaxing magic, and the singularly appetizing appetizers completed the spell. The polenta soufflé wasn't puffy, exactly, but an airy, unmolded polenta cake -- I might have called it a polenta timbale, but I was so taken with the dish that I didn't care what name the restaurant gave it. It was light and tender and had that ineffable, faintly earthy corn taste that comes from cornmeal, an interesting step away from fresh corn, and came with a nice little heap of salad, arugula leaves full of tiny, sweet tomatoes topped with generous slices of sharp grana padana cheese. We both exclaimed over the dish with pleasure. I was so enamored that I quoted Brillat-Savarin: "The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star."
The Brazilian cheese bread proved to be small, hot biscuits almost like popovers, which went beautifully with the salad and "soufflé," but which I didn't really consider an appetizer on their own. However, once I tasted them I knew that I would have to order them whenever I returned to Mangarosa -- they were irresistible. Any lingering crankiness evaporated; the delight we were taking in our meal, the sharing of these two excellent dishes, was all we were thinking about. We felt lucky to be sitting in this restaurant, eating this food, at this particular moment, and that's pretty much why we go out in the first place.
Our pleasure continued with the main courses: Lee's ravioli -- stuffed with ricotta, topped with chopped heirloom tomatoes and shredded basil, and glistening in a light sauce of lemon butter -- was delicious, fully the equal of the dishes we'd started with. I had been in a big meat mood and tried to order a steak (the short Peixe e Carnes list included two steaks and one dish each of fish, chicken, and pork), but I was told that both steaks were "designed to serve two people." So I fell back on the pork chop "Milanese," a huge breaded one, flattened but still quite thick -- it could easily have served two also -- barely moistened with a lemon garlic vinaigrette. It was a satisfying, simple presentation. We shared a plate of rapini, spiced up with a lot of slivered garlic and chili flakes, chosen from seven possible Accompanhamentos (the meat dishes come unadorned).
Without feeling rushed in any way, we found, happily, that we had time for dessert. But after the surprises of our first two courses, I was disappointed. Maybe if my plate of moist white cake garnished with chopped fruit hadn't been identified as "tropical tiramisu," I would have been more pleased: It was a nice cake, the fruit equally pleasant, but I'd expected something more complicated. Lee was well-pleased with her sorvete de doce de leite con castanha do para caramelizada, a long and complicated name for a simple sweet -- dulce de leche ice cream topped with caramelized Brazil nuts, which proved to be a good combination (the candied nuts were of excellent quality). But I didn't think the desserts quite came up to the level of the rest of the meal.
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