H ow do you bottle that capricious, highly desirable thing called hip? And, more important, once you’ve bottled it, how do you manufacture it night after night? Drew Nieporent, the gregarious proprietor of Nobu, Montrachet, and several other hip, semi-hip, and formerly hip establishments, is a master of this fickle art, and his newest restaurant, Mai House, shows some of the hallmarks of his time-honored formula. First, you need an esoteric culinary tradition, preferably from a mysterious, potentially chic Asian country, in this case Vietnam. Then, you need a good-size room in which to exhibit tchotchkes from said country, like screens of lacquered wood, delicately carved renderings of goddesses in flowing robes, and lamps made to look like great, bulbous lotus blossoms. Last, you need a name chef, a talented impresario who can take his particular vision and apply it to this mysterious cuisine in new and inviting ways for the glittering masses.
The chef Nieporent has chosen to be the new Nobu of Vietnamese food is Michael Bao Huynh, whose own clubby fusion restaurant down on the Lower East Side, Bao 111, has generated a good deal of heat among lounge lizards and gourmets alike. But as any lounge lizard will tell you, it’s easier to generate heat in a small space than a big one, and despite the presence of all those lacquered screens and Vietnamese goddesses, the room at Mai House (which is located around the corner from Nobu, on Franklin Street in Tribeca) feels big, impersonal, and strangely flat. There is a crowd-friendly bar area up front, where, on a recent frigid Saturday evening, revelers were huddled at a row of pro forma café tables, sipping the usual assortment of garishly themed cocktails with names like Buddha’s Eye, Tiger Tail, and Flyboy. Inside the industrial-size dining room, the tables and booths are arranged like a giant cafeteria, and the walls are colored in watery shades of coffee and tobacco brown.
Huynh’s subtle blend of traditional and fusion Vietnamese specialties (sturdy crocks of the beefy northern noodle soup “Bun Bo Hue,” Berkshire pork belly sprinkled with coconut juice) can sometimes be overwhelmed by this large, washed-out space, but if you focus on the simple things, you probably won’t be disappointed. The Vietnamese are masters at producing intense flavors in small, delicate packages, so it’s a good idea to linger over the appetizers. Order the cool, spicy beef salad; the hot spring rolls made with mushroom or with pork and shrimp (not the cold ones stuffed with aged strings of vermicelli); and grilled items like barbecued lamb skewered with sticks of lemongrass, and round little patties of wild boar stuck with thin bamboo toothpicks. The real delicacies, however, are the lightly fried frog’s legs “lollipops” (piled on a banana leaf, with a rich aïoli spiced with habanero chile), and tender little pieces of barbecued quail stacked atop piles of sweetly sticky rice tossed with frizzled shallots and bits of sweet Chinese sausage.
The first wave of entrées to hit our table tended to be chunkier, more Westernized, and not very interesting. My helping of “Chile Hacked Chicken” was not hacked but sliced in a standard suburban way, and despite its dusting of chile powder, it tasted more or less like, um, chicken. The “Kaffir Lime Duck” was similarly straightforward, notable less for its tart taste than for its lack of crispy ducklike crunch. Among seafood items, I liked the seared sea bass, which is lightly fried and sunk in a rich sauce flavored with strips of ginger. On the other hand, the “Clay Pot Mekong Market Fish” was so heavily flavored with pepper and anise that you wouldn’t necessarily recognize it as fish. The most expensive seafood dish (and by today’s standards it’s pretty cheap) was a $29 helping of Dungeness crab that contained more glass noodles than crab. The most decorative was the fried, head-on red snapper, contorted into a kind of crown and drizzled with a gummy sweet-and-sour sauce.
Strangely, the understated, meatier portion of Huynh’s menu produces the richer, more inventive dishes. Among these, my fellow tasters and I agreed, the racy Wagyu-beef-cheek stew is the thing to get. It’s not really a stew, although the beef cheeks have been cooked long enough so that they have a melting quality, which goes nicely with the accompanying curried cauliflower purée. The Berkshire pork belly has been braised in a similarly expert way, in coconut juice. Instead of presenting his pork in a giant, barely digestible hunk, the way Western chefs like to do, Huynh slices it thinly and lays it over a mound of pickled red cabbage to cut the richness. The lemongrass short ribs are thinly cut in a similar way, barbecued to a spicy, faintly charred crisp, and brought to the table on a sizzling rasher covered with sweet onions. And if you want a traditional noodle dish, order the Bun Bo Hue, which is served in a hot earthen crock with lots of soupy, anise-flavored beef shank and hunks of nourishing pig’s knuckle.