186 Franklin St., at Hudson St.
With a number of prominent restaurants in his back pocket (Nobu, Centrico & Tribeca Grill), Drew Nieporent has set his sights…across the street from his flaship Nobu hotspot. This
newest venture is a truly a team effort with Chef Michael Bao Huynh,
who’s had his own fair share of restaurant success (Bao 111 & Bao Noodles). Drew has left both
the modern design and menu in Michael’s capable hands at Mai House. This
restaurant is an an exercise in feng shui chic, an exploration of modern Vietnamese architecture and cuisine. Unlike many fusion style spots to come before, Mai House isn’t a watered down version of Vietnames fare, but rather the real deal.
Michael has transformed what was once a Tribeca warehouse into a serene dining oasis. Lotus flower light fixtures shed a soft light onto dark wood floors in the airy and expansive 120-seat space, elegantly outfitted with a sleek bamboo and mother-of-pearl bar, zebra wood banquettes and hand-carved wood along the walls. While perfectly stylish, the minimalist modern decor seems to beg for a pillow or cushy lounge chair. Still, rather than serving as a distraction, the design encourages diners to focus their attention on the fare, which is worthy of great attention.
I settled into a back table to take in the scenery and the surprisingly suited crowd with a Buddha’s eye cocktail, a gentle mix of Tanqueray 10, fresh honeydew water and crushed Thai basil. Though I usually steer clear of gimmicky cocktail menus with trendy spins on the classics, the setting seemed to call for such an elixir, and I was unexpectedly pleased by the gently sweet offering, which practically transported me to an exotic beach far away from the city’s hustle and bustle.
As the waiter began to ratlle off his favorite dishes (per my request), my friend, spotting a fresh dungeness crab entree, interrupted, exclaiming, “Dungeness crab! You never see that on a menu.” How could I argue for the steamed barramundi when her words rang so true? Sure, there were shellfish platters scattered about the city at various steakhouses and seafood spots, but rare was the occassion when crab was celebrated as an entree.
While my friend would’ve happily bypassed the appetizers to get to the bottom of the crab, I argued to dine according to custom, and begin with the hot mushroom spring rolls. These fried nibbles were presented with a side of lettuce and pickled carrot and daikon, which our waiter explained was to be wrapped around the fried rice paper rolls. We happily obliged and were handsomely rewarded. These were no ordinary spring rolls: filled with rich chanterelle, porcini and shitake mushrooms, the assemblage was a delicate, yet crunchy interplay of textures and sweet & sour flavors.
Still coming off a mushroom high, I seamlessly moved to the duck leg confit, entangled in a heaping pile of miso, arugula, green mango, mint, pomegranate seeds and pickled lemongrass. While pleasing to the eye, the duck, soaked in a bland pomegranate dressing, was encumbered by the complicated melange, which altogether lacked character. Perhaps, it would’ve been better served by the crunch of crushed peanuts and no dressing at all.
But the duck confit would quickly become a faint memory as the highly anticipated crab entree arrived. Served in a grand crab shell, plump chunks of crab meat, soft glass noodles, fresh chives and king mushrooms stewing in a warm flavorful fish stock, generously spilled over into the bowl beneath it. Though this dish was truly beyond words, I’ll give it a whirl. A zesty lime and garlic seasoning gave this otherwise soothing dish, a refreshing and enchantingly delectable kick. Equally, a side of eggplant, which was simply cooked in coconut milk, was a wonderful Vietnamese take on comfort food that ought not be neglected.
I couldn’t resist the dessert special, an almond banana cake wrapped in a banana leaf. Served with a perilously addictive cinammon ice cream, moist, fresh-from-the-oven banana cake was dotted with fresh chunks of gooey banana, and served atop a lush tapioca coconut sauce. While the durian cake was an artful display – layers of durian cake (made from a prickly fruit native to southeastern Asia) and marzipan, wrapped in a white chocolate shell with a papaya hibiscus coulis – it had an oddly overpowering aroma and disuasively sour aftertaste. Luckily, there was still a spoonful of spicy cinammon ice cream adrift on the plate.
While Vietnamese seasonings of the lemongrass, curry and coconut milk sorts, are alive and well in Mai House, the dish’s are decidedly more tempered and accessible here. Michael Bao has elevated regional Vietnamese to a plane of elegance, and though there’s noticeably less of a kick to the fare, it seems to serve them well.