It’s been cold. way too cold. how many times do you need to cram a Nanookian wardrobe into a gym locker, sweat through it on the subway, and sit on all of it in an overheated movie theater before you curse your life for not working at home (even if you are starting to loathe Chinese takeout more than the Homeland Security Act)?
If those icy realities weren’t bad enough, the colder it gets, the hungrier I get. Even with my love to keep me warm, I’ve always found everyone’s a lot hotter when they’re fed. But the last thing I’m in the mood for is a restaurant where the other patrons are sure to dish about your having hat hair. I want somewhere I can fall into, throw off the seven-layer garb, and dine knowing those around me aren’t hoping Bill Cunningham will shoot them for the “Sunday Styles” section in their new shearling.
That’s why I’ve willingly started trudging over to O Mai more often than I lose gloves. Eating well should always be effortless, but it takes on added importance after walking against the wind long enough to imagine D. W. Griffith yelling, “Cut! Print!” O Mai has exactly the right come-on-in-we’ll-fix-you-up-in-no-time attitude. Not that it’s fireplace-and-big-armchair cozy. Its warmth is more welcoming than snuggly, helped by the quick-thaw energy of a spirited crowd as relieved and happy as you are to sit across from a friendly red-nosed face. If you’re still having trouble shaking off the chill, O Mai’s fragrantly steaming bowl of coconut pumpkin soup should do it, its oddly appealing blend of near-sweetness enhanced by chopped yams, mushrooms, and peanuts. Or close your eyes and sigh as a silken hunk of seafood dumpling slides past your blue lips, bathed in a clear broth perfumed by coriander and peppers.
But O Mai isn’t relying on a few better-than-Cup-a-Soup moments. Like its successful predecessors Cyclo in the East Village and Nam in Tribeca, it serves up a Vietnamese menu marked not only by a graceful, sprightly way with spices but by the reassuring proposition that the food should be as clean as is it satisfying. Spring rolls of shrimp, pork, and vegetables, and rice-paper rolls of grilled prawn, have great snap. Green-papaya salad brings together dried beef and shrimp with breezy zest. Spicy beef salad is more harmonious, tempered by lemongrass and basil. Ginger and fresh lime nicely tweak slices of grilled eggplant. Marinated baby-back ribs are stumpy but meaty, steamed clams give off an aroma of kaffir and lemongrass (though the lime-ginger dipping sauce is too faint), and glistening mushroom-rich ravioli arrive beckoning with fried shallot and basil.
Though flavorful, meat entrées are cooked too often on the well side. However, even if you ask the kitchen to turn down the flame, it’s not likely to surpass three oh-so-swell seafood dishes: crispy skinned fillet of red snapper with a delicious chili-lime sauce, a toss of tenderly grilled scallops and prawns in chilies and basil, and a lusciously steamed sea bass in ginger and scallions with born-to-slurp bean-thread noodles.
O Mai may have the best banana bread around, a coconut pyramid to forever change a doubting mind about tapioca, and proof that most sorbetsor at least litchi and tangerinebelong in champagne. But if you adore coffee, request a glass the non-Vietnamese way (without the condensed milk). The house uses a chicory-flavored brand from Vietnam called Café Cao Nguyen: It’s just one more reason why I’ll still be showing up at O Mai long after I’ve changed to shorts and sandals. I even promise to fix my hair.
Don’t be surprised if a stiff wind from the Hudson blows you into Voyage with a wicked lash. So, do you laugh or cry when you catch sight of a blatantly fake fireplace glowing in the bar? Luckily, chef Scott Barton’s tongue isn’t tucked so far in his cheek that he’s lost all sense of his palate. It’s more like his taste is all over the mapJapan, Louisiana, Jamaicawith some ports of call more enjoyable than others. His spoon-bread ragout appetizer with shrimp and crayfish is a Kodak moment. Gimme his truffled scallops on grits with red-eye gravy and call me Scarlett. Oxtail croquettes, take me home!
As for the baby greens, they take a shine to pomegranate vinaigrette. But sashimi tuna is scorched by harissa oil, gulf shrimp is monsooned by avocado parfait, and there’s so much fry that one’s hard-pressed to find the curried oyster inside it. Chatham cod is caressed by lentil crust, juicy pork tenderloin comes with the best dateham-hock-stuffed plantainsand roasted salmon with basil mash is so confident and fine that it shows why Barton should trust simplicity more. It might prevent his squab from arriving DUI from the bourbon glaze, or sweet-potato gnocchi being trounced by trumpet mushrooms, leeks, and garlic. It’s probably maiden-voyage jitters. With its sassy cod cakes, black-eyed-pea fritters, pineapple tarte Tatin, apple pain perdu, and a cappuccino tapiocaall exemplary examples of cross-cultural accordVoyage may not yet be a destination, but if your passport isn’t likely to get stamped anytime soon, it’s a nifty place to come in from the cold. Just don’t try to rub your hands by the fire.