A meal at any of the reliably empty Souk Al Bahar’s restaurants can prove a tediously awkward experience. The staff, not yet familiar with the sight of customers, hover over your every move. The managers tend to be a little too eager for details on your dining experience. And the meals usually culminate in desperate cries of, ‘Come again soon! Please! Please, come back.’

At Mango Tree, the mall’s new Thai restaurant, the obsequiousness of the staff is further highlighted by the starkly hip environment. The interior resembles a highly paid designer’s interpretation of a Zen meditation room, with burgundy walls, high ceilings, geometric-shaped lighting and chestnut tables boasting slim floral arrangements. The middle of the room houses a giant Buddha statue, and the long, winding restaurant (clearly built for dining hordes) culminates in a massive private room/wine cellar housing 1,000 bottles of wine.

In a word, the space is cool. Too cool to be so empty. Dining there, I was reminded of a birthday party I attended as a child, where the birthday girl’s mother had procured a towering cake and planned an intricate scavenger hunt, and even bought her daughter a new birthday dress. Unfortunately, I was one of only two guests there. In both instances, the failed joviality resulted in an air of depressing desperation.

My dining companion and I decided to tuck in immediately to starters and drinks (which seemed like the thing to do, given the venue’s extensive wine and cocktail list). We opted to split the mixed appetisers, which were a bit hit and miss: While the beef satay was tender and juicy, the papaya salad was over-spiced. The shrimp spring rolls had a perfectly crisp outer shell, and a fresh-tasting interior, while the spicy fish cakes were a little too dense and chewy.

The chicken wrapped in pandan leaves was a delightful surprise, partly because it was free range (a term rarely heard in Dubai), but also because it was juicy and tender. The accompanying tamarind sauce was also a nice balance of sour and sweet. I washed each bite down with a sip from my mangostini (a frothy drink made with blended mangosteen), while my date happily escaped into her lychee mojito.

While I was tempted to order more free-range chicken for a main course, on our waiter’s advice I went with roasted duck in pineapple curry. Creamy and coconut-based, it came served in half a pineapple shell. We debated whether this was classy or gaudy (we settled on gaudy). The overall flavour of the curry was pleasant, with neither the sweetness of the coconut nor the heat of the spices vying for dominance, though the dish was disturbed by the presence of Thai peas, which, while authentic, tend to be very hard and very bitter. I imagine the chef included them in a bid to hit all the taste buds, but – as their flavour is deeply unpleasant – I ended up picking around them.

The large portion sizes also resulted in me tiring of my dish, and I began to greedily eye my dining companion’s goong ob woon sen, a massive portion of delicate glass noodles and large, crisp prawns marinated in an oyster sauce. Its only drawback was that it was heavy on the noodles (and, therefore, the belly).

I decided to top my meal with tab tim krob kra te – shaved ice covered with water chestnuts, jackfruit (a chewy, gelatinous fruit, common in southeast Asia), and doused in coconut milk. The sugary mass was delightful in the first few bites, but became increasingly cloying as the ice started to melt. My companion’s ice cream spread (a scoop each of coconut, mango and lychee), however, was both fresh and relatively light.

As we took our leave, the staff followed behind us, bowing repeatedly, a gesture that – even by Dubai standards – we found to be overly servile. It was an unfortunate cloud over a meal that offered some genuine gems.

The bill (for two)
1x Mixed appetiser Dhs130
1x Roasted duck curry Dhs72
1x Glass noodles Dhs165
1x Jasmine rice Dhs16
1x Ice cream Dhs38
1x Shaved ice Dhs38
1x Large water Dhs15
1x Jasmine tea Dhs18
1x Lychee mojito Dhs58
1x Mangostini Dhs58
Total (including service) Dhs608