NEW YORK: MAI HOUSE (AGAINST ALL THE ODDS)
Some places have everything stacked against them from the start and you are predisposed not to like them before you even set foot in the place.
Mai House was one of those, but, despite my preconceptions, I have to say that it offered up one of the more enjoyable meals in New York so far.
My friend, Cathy, who is “in the business” had made a reservation for me and told me that we would be well taken care of. I didn’t doubt her, she is a woman of her word.
However, I had my doubts about the place. The name for a start. Quite the most abominable name for a restaurant I can recall. Now, I love a pun as much as the next man unless the next man happens to one of the cast of “ I Am Sorry I Haven’t a Clue” but the name MAI HOUSE is just shameful.
Next was the room. When we walked in from the blustery, wet Fall evening, the welcome from the front of house may have been warm but the room left me stone cold. It is cavernous with no sense of intimacy at all looking more like a gallery space than a place where you would sit and break bread or, er crackers.
Finally, and this is more my prejudice than their fault, the chef in charge of this “Vietnamese” restaurant hails, not from Hanoi, but from Cleveland, Ohio.
Oh, this did not bode well apart from the potential of a coruscating review about “whitey not being able to sing the blues”
But, damn them, the meal turned out to be really rather good with said chef, Sean Scotese, showing a light clean touch and an understanding of flavours which, apparently came from spending six months in Vietnam prior to the opening of the restaurant.
It helped that, because of their fondness for Cathy, they sent out quite a few extra bits and pieces, but none of that would matter if the food was rubbish. It wasn’t
A complimentary starter saw a large, perfectly medium scallop on top of a layer of rice noodles in a broth made with just enough fish sauce to give it tang.
Mushroom spring rolls were crisp, dense and chewy (that’s a good thing by the way) and two salads both displayed interesting combinations of taste, texture and presentation. A raw artichoke salad was, perhaps less successful than rare beef with pineapple and pomelo and cuttlefish were cooked to an ideally tender consistency.
Given the extra courses that we were being treated too, they served the main dishes in two waves. First fish which included a large chunk of citrus infused black cod (a nod, I guess to their sister restaurant, NOBU) and, better in my opinion, lightly battered chunks of red snapper served pleasingly surrounded by the deep fried remains of the scaley creature involved.
Meat dishes, as so often is the case these days, were a weak point with a slightly overcooked duck breast sitting in a sauce of “duck hash” that showed no signs of the advertised kaffir lime leaves.
Side dishes of noodles and sticky rice, were however, both well worth the glycaemic spike their ingestion inevitably causes.
Considering that we were, by now, in full “bye bye belt’ territory, we had to engage the second stomach to cope with the array of desserts that appeared. All of which did exactly what they were supposed to. Sorbets were sharp and refreshing, a panna cotta, soft and yielding and two cakes ( one almond & banana, the other yucca) slightly too heavy to finish.
The bill, which in no way reflects the amount of food we ate, came to about $140 including tip, which was well deserved for attentive and efficient if not over effusive service.
Given the fact that my chum works for the restaurant involved and that the chef spent a good chunk of time chatting to us, I would probably have had to be nice about Mai House (did I mention what a fricking awful name that is?) anyway even if it had turned out to be execrable.
Fortunately, despite my initial reservations, I don’t have to be polite. I can genuinely say it is a good restaurant with a chef who knows what he is doing.
Who knew? Perhaps White men can play The Blues after all.