Drew Nieporent isn’t accustomed to doing things quietly. With Nobu, TriBeCa Grill, and Montrachet (among others) in his restaurant empire, he knows how to make a splash. So it is surprising that when the Times published its fall restaurant preview, there was no mention of a new Vietnamese restaurant from Nieporent’s Myriad Restaurant Group. Was Nieporent trying to downplay expectations? If so, he needn’t have worried. Mai House, which opened just nine days ago, is a hit.
Nieporent likes to keep a close eye on his restaurants. All but one of his seven New York properties are in TriBeCa, within a five-minute radius of one another; indeed, three of them, including Mai House, are on the same block as his corporate office on Franklin Street. The night before Mai House opened, I walked in to take a look. There was Drew, lecturing the serving staff: “You’re here to serve the customer, not the kitchen.” It may not be the most startling insight, but I’ve been to a few restaurants where the staff needed that lecture. Last night, Drew was in and out of the restaurant several times, chatting up the staff and making subtle adjustments.
I began with a couple of the specialty cocktails, which were only $10 apiece, in a town where they could easily be $15. Either of the Tiger Tail (Absolut Peppar, Triple Sec, Passion Fruit Puree, Thai Chile) or the Flyboy (Ginza no suzume souj, Marasca, Rhum Orange, Lime Juice) could easily become addictive.
For the appetizer, I ordered the Wild Boar Sausage ($11) with green papaya salad. The sausage is served warm, and is just mildly spicy. The kitchen slices it into small pieces, so that you can pick it up with your chopsticks. It comes mixed with the salad, which is crisp and refreshing. Braised Berkshire Pork Belly ($23), on a bed of red cabbage and drizzled with coconut juice, should be everyone’s guilty pleasure. It looks gorgeous and tastes even better. After getting on the scale this morning, I concluded I should have resisisted Sticky Rice with Chinese Sausage ($4), but I’m glad I didn’t.
Vietnamese Coffee ($4) was a dud. A mix of espresso-like coffee and condensed milk, it tasted sour and dull.
The chef, Michael Bao Huynh, made his name at Bao 111 in the East Village. He must be especially fond of the wild boar sausage, as he came over to my table after dinner to inquire whether I had liked it. I replied that I did, adding that the braised pork belly was terrific too. He replied in self-deprecating fashion, “That must be because you like pork.”
The menu is still undergoing some refinement, as one would expect for a new restaurant. A pre-opening menu (PDF) had the wild boar sausage as an entrée, but now it is available only as an appetizer. While it immediately leaped out at me as the first thing to try (and I was not disappointed), evidently not enough diners were willing to take that leap of faith for a main course. I’m glad Huynh hasn’t given up on it.
The space is gorgeous (see the Eater preview), although fairly informal. There are no tablecloths, though I was happy to see lacquer chopsticks, as opposed to the disposable wooden ones they’re using at Nobu these days. The server was attentive, and almost a bit over-eager. He apparently hadn’t been briefed on the evolving menu, as when I asked for a recommendation, he suggested an item that is no longer on offer.
Mai House hasn’t caught on yet. It was only just barely warming up during the 6:00 p.m. hour last night (hardly a barometer on a Friday night, I must admit). If I am right about the cuisine, it won’t be a secret for long. If all Vietnamese cooking is this good, I’m ready to hitch the next flight to Hanoi.
Mai House (186 Franklin Street between Greenwich & Hudson Streets, TriBeCa)