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     Volume 4 Issue 26 | December 24, 2004 |

   Cover Story
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Eating Out

Escape into the Cafe Culture

Farhana Ahmad

Have you visited the new baby in the Mango family? In case you are wondering the origins of such geneology, the Mango Family refers to the two sister cafes with the name of that exotic fruit. Its name is Escape from Shanghai! This intriguing name has most people baffle but it also gets the creative process working overtime. People have guessed a whole host of things. From "oh maybe it's a movie title', to "maybe it's a noodle bar", "hey are they serving Chinese food", "are the people Taiwanese?" the speculations have been endless. The most bizarre theory was "it must be that two partners who belonged to a restaurant called Shanghai and now they have split up and one of the partners have opened up this restaurant and named it Escape from Shanghai to commemorate the situation"! What is interesting is the fact that this name has generated the curiosity of the people to want to go investigate. Maybe that's what the owner wanted when he was naming this place! I was so fascinated by this title I just had to go and get the answers from the horse's mouth. This being the enigmatic and charismatic brains behind the Mango chain Salauddin Ahmed. Over a cup of freshly brewed coffee, we discussed dreams, aspirations, history, Dhaka, and a café cum restaurant named Escape from Shanghai.

Curious as ever about how such Euro influenced cafes came into existence, which reminds us so poignantly of a neighbourhood pub in any city in Europe, I asked Salauddin to share with us what made him venture into such a project. The Mango in Dhanmondi was started in November 9, 2000. It came from his constant frustration with the fact that there was actually no place to hang out in Dhaka. Salauddin always felt that a café is a place to hang out, drink good coffee, read magazines or the newspaper, meet new people. But people said this is Bangladesh not America. "But I always feel, hanging out and making new friends is universal", says Salauddin. "Dhaka is a city that makes you lonely very easily. It is so crowded, so unorganised. So, every day after work, in my own time I would draw collages in an attempt to design a place that would close some of the gaps, the missing platforms of Dhaka." The rest, as they say is history after Mango came into being. It was an instant success.

As traffic makes mobility impossible, countless requests came from the Gulshan crowd to open a café for them in their part of town. But Salauddin was not that eager as he assumed someone else would open a café for the Gulshanites. After waiting for nearly three and a half years, and after repeated pressure from the Gulshan regulars, the second Mango was born on October 1, 2004. Without any advertisement from their part, both the Mangos have become much talked about places in Dhaka.

But why another café/restaurant in virtually one and a half month's time? "Well, my brother, Shirajuddin Ahmed, became my legal partner", says Salahuddin. "We are a good team, a good combination. I am the creative part of the partnership, while he is the business part. After I complete the design and put together the place, he takes care of the running and the day to day management. In this way the two of us compliment each other. He takes a lot of trouble off my shoulder. The old Savera was one of my favourite restaurants in Dhaka. After it got burnt, an offer came to me to rent the space.

Then my brother and I discussed whether we would be able to start a new place. We thought of a café cum restaurant where there would be a fusion of local food with the café Mango menu, so that it would work for long hours. People could come here for breakfast, midmorning snack, lunch, afternoon coffee and dinner. We didn't want to open a solely Bangladeshi or a solely Chinese restaurant. We wanted to step into new frontiers, understand cultures and ethnicity. To break the concept that our tribal food are not Bangladeshi food, Escape from Shanghai would have quite a number of Chakma dishes on its menu."

But why 'Escape from Shanghai'? "Being around food quite a bit, my understanding is that eating out in this country, the first and the last choice remain Chinese and in between maybe Bangla, Thai or Indian. The name of the restaurant focuses on the majority who invest in our restaurants. I wanted to break away from the established idea that eating out has to be Chinese." The brothers did their share of research into the Chakma culture and heritage. "We made quite a few trips to Rangamati. We went food shopping there, went to the villages to see how they cook, serve and eat. We came to the conclusion that it would not be possible for us to recreate the total ambiance. So somehow we adjusted to the given boundaries and limitations. The chef and some waiters, for instance are from our tribal community."

Some people say that the menu items are a little pricey. Salauddin refutes this allegation. " The two Mangos and Escape from Shanghai are for those who desire the place, those who are willing to take the time." Like he so aptly puts it, "you don't need to wear a suit or speak English, the cafés are for those who enjoy being with friends and enjoy being alone. I feel our prices are less than a lot of other places. It's not the coffee or tea per se, rather the experience of the cup of tea or coffee. Our standard is above other places. We like to share this standard with other people and not look at it from the business angle. A good cup of tea in a clean cup has its own standard. But this maintenance costs money."

Salauddin feels a place to hang is something that many city people have been missing. The Mango cafés have been able to create an atmosphere where strangers become friends over cups of fragrant coffee. The pull of the place is not only the brews and the brownies but also the easy-going cosmopolitan ambience, the feeling that you could be anywhere in the world. The staff is cooperative and friendly. The music is very tasteful, oftentimes the theme being, instrumental in the morning, jazz at lunchtime and fusion in the afternoon. At these cafes talented artists can come and exhibit their work on the walls.

Salauddin tells us that both the Mangoes are very much a neighbourhood thing. "As an architect, I always try to promote new ideas and the possibility of new ideas. I will always attempt to show the beauty of space and the possibility of meeting of minds. Each work that I do is my direct attempt to let the user understand it from their position, to be able to relate to the place."

So, what is the trademark style of this designing whiz hell-bent on giving Dhakaites a place to hangout? "I look for the human quality in my work, as if I am looking at a person. I create basic layers and basic structures." It's interesting how he has used lights and lampshades in all the three places. There are light bulbs under tables, shades made from recycled bottles and glass bangles! "As you sit you don't see yourself but the person across you. So I adjusted the light to suit that. It's all about creating the mood. The light is hung from a particular height to produce enough light to light the food and to see the person sitting across. In all the cafés I have designed, it is the refinement of one idea, with each creation there is elevation of the ideas." Another trademark of Salauddin's is the avant-garde washroom in each establishment. "If the washroom is interesting, washing hands become special. I felt it was my responsibility to take up the challenge of redefining the idea of a washroom in an eating place with the idea that the little time you spend there should charge your mind."

What drives this creative genius? "The foolishness in me, that I believe so much in my own culture, the undying curiosity of the possibilities of knowing my own culture." Future plans? "The everlasting hope to see other people coming forward to do their bit for the city. "I truly believe anyone can do it and can have the support to run it."

Satisfied with the pleasant tête-à-tête with Salauddin Ahmed, I come away with the hope that he continues to design and open more places with the same character, ambiance, allure, attitude and freshness of the Mango chain.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004