The bright yellow awning providing a note
of good cheer among the bleak gray storefronts that define Atlantic
Avenue in winter belongs to Mai, a Southeast Asian restaurant
that opened in September.
Inside Mai (pronounced "My"), the serene dining room’s cream-colored walls glow with the light of glass sconces; the tables are glossy black lacquered wood; and matching benches are strewn with rose and apricot Indonesian pillows, their golden threads glinting in the subdued glow. Waitresses glide among the diners, pouring tea with the practiced gracefulness of Balinese dancers.
The restaurant’s owner and chef is Daniel Wu, who is a partner in Manhattan’s Jefferson and cooked at Cafe Asean.
"I serve light, healthy dishes with lots of seasonal vegetables," Wu told GO Brooklyn, defining his style. "I want to give people the opportunity to discover different produce and flavor combinations."
During a meal that journeyed through Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore, each dish was vibrant with bright flashes of citrus and direct hits of fresh herbs.
Take the "mi quong," a deep bowl of broth, noodles, Chinese ham and huge prawns that Wu described as typical Vietnamese street food. The stock is richly flavored with meat; the noodles are firm yet tender and surprisingly complex thanks to their turmeric marinade. Slices of the spicy pork had the density of rich pate, while a sprinkling of ground peanuts gave the mixture a salty kick.
Versions of this soup are served all over; they’re fine for a cheap, quick meal but their ingredients rarely distract from a good book. If you order this heavenly brew at Mai, you’ll want to save the reading for bed.
Like an uninspired noodle soup, a spring roll can be a lackluster affair. Not Wu’s "cha do ca," with its crisply fried wrapper. The appetizer is filled with moist salmon and cilantro leaves that add tang to the fish. Dunk the cigar-shaped cylinder into a dip made of basil, mint, lime juice and a bit of chopped, fresh bird chile, (a fiery hot pepper associated with Caribbean cooking) and the dish comes to life.
Two stellar appetizers are the "ca bam," wok-fried monkfish eaten with a lettuce leaf wrapper, and "muc nuong" a single, grilled squid stuffed with shrimp, glass noodles and shiitake mushrooms. The monkfish, a salty, heavily seasoned hash of sorts, is too strong to consume as is. Use the green as an edible scoop, top it with fresh mint and a crisp shrimp cracker, and the pungent filling is tamed by the vegetables. Equally delicious is the smoky, grilled squid, its stuffing chewy and tender, woodsy and sweet. Try it.
And don’t pass up the dazzling "ikan bakar." The entree features a smallish fillet of pan-seared snapper with the sort of moist, silvery flakes I associate with smoked sablefish. Velvety grilled zucchini and eggplant make worthy partners. Wu swirls the plate with an apricot-colored blend of coconut milk thickened slightly with ground candlenuts (like a macadamia but crisper), then heightens it with lime juice and lemongrass. The sauce is a showstopper on its own, and a generous ensemble player beside the other ingredients.
I was just as impressed with the "vi xao gung," slices of succulent, rosy duck breast rimmed with a deep layer of crisp-edged fat, and a leg as moist as confit that sat atop Chinese broccoli in a thin, full bodied wine and ginger sauce.
For dessert, we should have ordered the fruit plate. The other two choices were more odd - at least to this writer’s taste - than satisfying. One, a tapioca pudding served warm, was flavored with banana and cinnamon, then topped with crushed peanuts and grilled pieces of the fruit. It was slightly salty and subtly sweet: not bad, but nothing I’ll develop a taste for. The same goes for the dense, somewhat grainy lime and coconut pudding, although the slices of Asian pear (a fruit that tastes like pear with the crisp texture of an apple) and perfectly ripe slivers of mango that accompanied the dessert were refreshing.
Instead, I’d conclude the meal with a pot of ginger tea. We leaned in close while the waitress whispered that the ginger was freshly grated, not dried. A cup of the steaming liquid was as soothing as a nap beneath a down quilt.
In fact, everything about Mai - the quiet jazz playing, soft lights, even its name that means "cherry blossom" in Chinese - can lull you into a state of tranquility. Everything that is, but the food. Wu’s cooking provides as much excitement as my palate can take in one evening.
Mai (497 Atlantic Ave. between Third Avenue and Nevins Street in Boerum Hill) accepts cash only. Entrees: $9-$15.50. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. For reservations, call (718) 797-3880.