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.
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.
Which was so high that I immediately called my parents to tell them we would have dinner at Mangarosa soon; I knew my father would gladly share a steak with me. A week or so later, we were choosing between the grilled porterhouse with herb oil and the Brazilian steak Réchaud. Even before the server told us that the Brazilian steak involved us cooking it ourselves at the table, my father was plumping for it, because, he said, “You already know what a porterhouse is.” I insisted on reruns of the polenta dish and the cheese biscuits; my mom had chosen a starter called a crab and salt cod duo. She also suggested the foie gras for my father, which I had, uncharacteristically, balked at because of its price (at $17, it was $5 more than the next highest appetizer, and more expensive than several of the main courses and all three of the pastas). I relented immediately, in part because the dish's ingredients included mango (a minor theme at Mangarosa, named for a pink-fleshed variety prized in Brazil; the corn soup boasts a spicy mango purée and the sea bass comes with lemon, olives, mango, and olive oil) and in part because no dish on a menu should be off-limits.
But by then my father had decided on the hearts of palm salad, whose main ingredient lost some of its charm for me, slivered rather than in juicy chunks, mixed with arugula, endive, and radicchio and dressed with a citrus vinaigrette. The two plump cakes on my mother's plate were ringed with bright sauces — thick lemon aioli for the crab cake and thin red pepper coulis for the very salty but still tasty cod. We all shared the polenta soufflé, with happy results, my mother especially taken with the sharp cheese.
She went on to enjoy her risotto with grilled prawns — a bowlful of the mildest, creamiest rice with a skewer of fat, lightly smoky shrimp perched across it, which seemed like an afterthought but worked, the contrast in texture and flavor enhancing the two. A little iron grill with a flat pan top had been brought to the table and placed on a carefully positioned mat; a server lit a flame beneath and plopped fully a pound of pre-seared, rare-hearted, sliced hanger steak atop it. I moved the meat around with little tongs, trying pieces at varying levels of doneness and dipping them in the three condiments provided: a fresh, juicy salsa of minced tomatoes and onions; roasted garlic crisps; and farofa (toasted manioc flour) blended with tiny bits of bacon. For participatory dining, it was fairly discreet and easy, not to mention a bargain (for $25 — for two, not each — we both came away well-fed, and took about a third of the meat home). The roasted potatoes we ordered were fine, but now I wonder why we didn't also try the herb-roasted carrots or the sautéed mushrooms or the yucca fries, at a mild $3 each. I was being atypically stingy.
Again I was let down by the dessert I ordered (a vaguely bitter, slightly dry, boring chocolate cake sided with good vanilla ice cream) and beguiled by another on the table, a crème brûlée enlivened by chunks of, yes, ripe, sweet mango. The relative calm of the room had been broken by a lively, happy table of a dozen, seated inches from us by the front window, through which I'd been enjoying a glimpse of the Sts. Peter and Paul Church, on the far side of Washington Square Park. The large party didn't chase us out, exactly — we lingered until my father finished his cappuccino — but the noise made it easier to leave. There were a couple of dishes I hadn't yet tried (gnocchi with garlic and cream, crispy chicken with balsamic vinegar) that would make it easy to return.