April 16, 2007 | BITE: My Journal
Sharing at Mai House

Mai house rolls. Photo Steven Richter

Savory starters at Mai House. Photo: Steven Richter                         

What counts is on the plate.      Photo: Steven Richter

    Though this place can work itself into an annoying uproar when it’s full, at times it’s relatively calm. The Road Food Warrior is always up for Vietnamese food, and the price is right. It’s where we’re happy to come on our own dime. A round trip taxi commute could add another forty bucks, but the subway runs almost directly from our house - avoiding traffic snarls - and stops at Franklin, steps from a remarkably superior fried spring roll. My first visit last November was no fluke. Clearly, Michael Huynh, a restaurant contractor and part-time chef I discovered cooking so well at Bao 111, has found a new level of excellence here. Maybe he’s inspired by his wife, also a cook.  Or by his success; he recently opened a branch in Saigon.  I suspect a new adventurousness reflects partner Drew Nieporent’s coaching.

    Forget what you may have read. This is not yet another of Nieporent’s over-designed hangouts for the blasé and the beautiful. Tonight, at our table we do have a few beautifuls, but they live around the corner. Mostly Mai House draws plain old everyday people, unironic younguns, Vietnamese, and Vietnamese food-lovers, grey beards, yes, God forbid,  pre-baby boomers.  And, sorry Drew (full disclosure: a devoted member of our Citymeals-on-Wheels board), it looks like you spent maybe $500 to turn your vast Tribakery space into Mai House.  I like the water lily panels and the Buddha, but this is definitely not David Rockwell.

    I always order too much here. It’s hard not to. Tonight I try to whip my pals into self-control. Everyone loves the thick and fragrant porridge of shrimp and yam (except for a garlic-phobe on my right). None of us have ever tasted anything like the chef’s delicate little tuffets of wild boar sausage, so tender, so savory. Most of the sauces are different and wonderful but the kitchen has a tendency to go for excessive sweetness.  And I liked the noodles formed from shrimp paste when they looked more like noodles and less like intestines, but they’re still very tasty, and the king prawns and the fiery curry broth they swim in are sensational. (We’ve asked for extra prawns and had it dished into bowls out in the kitchen.) Salt and pepper cuttlefish, lemongrass lamb skewers, and BBQ quail are favorite starters. Steamed black cod, the Dungeness crab with garlic chive, spicy wegyu beef cheek stew, and kaffir lime duck make it difficult to focus on just two or three entrees, especially as we have to have bun bo Hue (rice noodles with pig’s feet and beef shank), or stir fry Saigon noodles, and maybe smoky rice with Chinese sausage and melted eggplant…oh, enough.  Beer, especially Tiger beer, is what goes best with this food, though I’m content with a glass of Chapoutier’s Cote de Rhone. Still, I would like to see a few bottles at $30 or less, but some people order wine by the label not by the price, so maybe they won’t mind.

    Pandam (Vietnamese vanilla) panna cotta with curry gelee, and the warm black rice pudding are oddly delicious.  I can live without avocado sorbet again. Next time I might say it’s my birthday and get a wee chocolate birthday cake with "happy birthday" written in chocolate on the plate.

    How you can be sure this is not (or not yet) a cocoon for stylish gen-Xers or the overflow from Waverly Place is that Nieporent is trying to lure a late night following with his new “Gooooodnight Vietnam” menu – 26 offerings priced at $10 or less after 10 p.m., including Michael’s new Mai burger with peppery aioli, and corn-and-coconut fritters.

186 Franklin Street between Hudson and Greenwich.
212 421 0606.  Dinner only.



Patina Restaurant Group