Take stock of the bar, the source of Yellow Bird and Sugar Pie, cocktail names that belong in a Jimmy Buffett song. The bartender's raw materials, gathering like lazy-day afterthoughts next to a blender, include cans of mango juice, the prickly odds and ends of a pineapple, coconut cream and paper umbrellas -- all the makings for a gimmick. And yet the rum punch, a flawless combination of sweet pineapple, bitter lime and a warm sifting of nutmeg, tastes like the contraband my friend's father used to smuggle home from St. Martin in two-liter soda bottles. Potent, mint-steeped mojitos embody all the cooling powers of iced water. Even plastic monkeys hanging hooked-tailed from the rim can't turn these drinks silly.
Mango House is a serious undertaking for Chef-owner Anne Lloyd, whose childhood vacation memories are all sun and sand. Lloyd cooked at Gabrielle, Lola's and the late Spice Inc., among other local restaurants, and she and her husband honeymooned not long ago on sister islands Trinidad and Tobago. Was it wedded bliss or the rum that moved her to merge vacation and career? Whatever the catalyst, last February the 50-seater space that formerly housed Ninja, and for a short time Charleston Cafe, re-entered restaurant society as a Caribbean eatery featuring a professional kitchen and a setting that's as casual and colorful as the cuisine.
Though travel inspired Lloyd's tropical leanings, developing Mango House's menu was a full-blown anthropology project. She rediscovered the Caribbean in her kitchen, guided through recipes by her educated culinary sensibilities. There are as many callaloo recipes between Port-of-Spain and Kingston as there are gumbos between New Orleans and New Iberia. Lloyd sidestepped the seaweed-thick style she enjoyed in Trinidad, gracing her own stunning soup with a velveteen coconut broth. She adds crabmeat and okra and substitutes spinach for the hard-to-find namesake green.
Lloyd's Caribbean fascination and Southern training play well together on most plates, perhaps because island food and what Orleanians call "soul food" share some similar principles. Both genres distinguish themselves by resourcefulness, making much out of little and feeding neighborhoods from one pot. Mango House's entrees also follow the Southern meat-and-two model (one meat, two sides). The greatest challenge, and thrill, is choosing which two of Lloyd's well-crafted side dishes will harmonize with your main course.
The exotic curried mango, cooked down pit and all with vinegar and brown sugar, is pedal-to-the-metal sweet-sourness. It's a dreamy side with the lush, loosely packed crabcakes, which are trussed with a web of fried sweet potato outside and topped with zippy avocado sauce. But the mango steals all the oomph from wonderful chicken curry, whose heavily spiced coconut gravy prefers fried plantains and lime-spiked Calypso Slaw.
Pigeon peas with coconut rice, too dry to enjoy on its own, is a calming force when paired with the fierce but exhilarating beef pepper pot stew; whole okra simmered with tomatoes offers additional relief. Fish (often red snapper) wrapped in banana leaf and steamed in a cologne of ginger, cilantro and garlic turns out moister than it was in the ocean. I liked it with the Indian-spiced Greens Maraval. Chicken, even Mango House's outspoken, peppery-sweet jerk chicken, is always the peacemaker, agreeable with any side dish.
Acknowledging that sweet accents are characteristic of island cooking, I wish the coconut batter adhering to coconut shrimp appetizers, and also the garam masala-seasoned squash filling Calabasa entrees, tasted less like dessert. Over-sweetening also assails the sweet potatoes mashed with allspice. A sherbet-like mango ice dessert is merely as sweet as the ripest mango, and terrific.
If only it had been so with the heart of palm, papaya and avocado salad, which I would order again only with the assurance of ripened fruit. The potato roti appetizer, gummy dough enveloping a softball of spice-stained potatoes, isn't a fond memory, either. Granted, nitpicking seems beside the point when heartwarming food is this inexpensive (appetizers start at $3.25; entrees at $9).
Categorizing Mango House's clientele is impossible, except to say that anyone with the slightest predisposition to fun would appreciate the lagniappe sweet potato chip baskets, the playful underwater portraits and the chance to eat inside what feels like a Chinese lantern, an effect created by candles and white Christmas lights illuminating burnt saffron walls. The boxy building is a high-end hut, its wood floors worn as if by years of sand grinding beneath flip-flops.
Certain New Orleans traits -- the hibiscus flowers, the monsoons, the isolated culture, the languid service -- mirror life on a tropical island. Perhaps this explains how Mango House has so gracefully sailed into our restaurant scene.