First, I started hearing from the gourmands the enthusiastic eaters.
They were raving about Mai Thais $9.99 all-you-can-eat lunch special, loaded with curries, stir fries, sushi, noodles and more. These are young guys who think nothing of downing a 2,000-calorie lunch, and then start to get hungry again for dinner at 5 or 6 p.m.
So I checked it out, and they had a point.
Mai Thai had always had a pretty solid handle on great-tasting Asian cuisine, but its high-end feel and key Downtown location meant it was a little more expensive than some other places around town.
Yet here was this quality food, as much of it as you wanted, for less than 10 bucks. (The items change, but heres one personal highlight: thick-cut snapper, batter-fried and cooked with crisp vegetables in a black pepper sauce.) It made me wish I could scarf it down like I used to.
A few months later, I started hearing from a different group of folks the gourmets. The type of guys who pay extra to check a bag home from Seattle so they can fill it with handmade salami from Mario Batalis dads place and imported butter from the French grocery store.
They couldnt stop talking about something called nikumaki, a $7 plate of asparagus, wrapped in rib-eye steak, pan-seared, and doused in teriyaki. (They were plotting repeat trips back, planning on eating nothing but this.)
Though my imagination pictured a ridiculously large rib-eye bent roughly around a tiny sprig of asparagus, the dish ended up much more presentable, of course. The slices of the beef not too thin, because that would dry out held the flavor of the steak, accented by the astringent asparagus and tartly sweet sauce.
Turns out these guys had a point as well.
The nikumaki comes off a new bar menu at Mai Thai based on the izakaya trend that has seeped out of Japan to places like Los Angeles and New York City. The idea is basically Japanese tapas you can order a bunch of smaller plates, share them, taste them all, and have a few drinks along the way.
At Mai Thai, these plates range in price from $3 for edamame, spring rolls, satays and other basic dishes, to $7 for fancier dishes like crispy pork belly confit and a spicy tartar of tuna, salmon and mango. You can hang out in the bar at the front of the restaurant and taste all night Monday through Saturday.
I wholeheartedly endorse this way to eat. I fell in love with the pintxos in the Basque Country. They are tiny plates of cured ham on sliced bread, skewers with tangy peppers, anchovies and olives, roasted red peppers with salt cod. You have a few, grab a cana (a small beer), and move on to the next place. You can approximate the experience most nights at the Basque Market on Grove Street.
But my Basque wife and I certainly enjoyed the Mai Thai version.
We loved the $3 sunomono, a perfectly balanced cucumber, radish and lemon salad. The $5 bacon-wrapped mochi was an unexpected twist on the bacon-wrapped trope. Mochi, if youve never had it, is a moist cake made of pounded sticky rice. Its a little sweet, almost foamy. The closest I can get you to this experience would be a bacon-wrapped date, but that still isnt all that close.
The $7 tuna tartar with wasabi guacamole and yam chips was over-seasoned, to my taste, with ponzo sauce. I would rather let the fresh ingredients carry the day. (Try the tower of tuna appetizer at Chandlers if you love ahi the same folks who turned me on to Mai Thais steak-wrapped asparagus rightly swear by this dish.)
But Mai Thai nailed the $7 braised oxtail gyoza, made with tender Idaho-raised meat stuffed into a pot sticker and drizzled with a reduction of the sauce made by the slow-roasting of the oxtail. Thats an ingredient, by the way, that I am glad to see popping up at some key places (like the Modern Hotel and the St. Lawrence Gridiron food truck, to name a couple). It tastes like the tenderest of beef roasts, done right, with a dark, earthy saltiness.
And speaking of trends, there is another in full bloom at Mai Thai this time behind the bar. They are aging a Scotch, sweet vermouth and Benedictine drink in their own oak barrels (a concept I first tried, and loved, at Husk in Charleston, S.C., the month before it was named Bon Appetits restaurant of the year in 2011). The drink that caught my eye at Mai Thai (and will bring me back for sure) was called the Dublin sour, a mix of Jamesons Irish whiskey, fresh lemon, an egg white and a syrup made of Guinness stout. But there are 40 such creations on the current drink menu, and from what I hear on the street, the citys best bartenders have taken notice and theyre not an easy bunch to impress.
Its hard to generate a lot of excitement about a restaurant that has been around for a few years, but Mai Thai has pulled it off. If you havent been in a while, it may be worth a stop. Just be ready to try something new. They are.
Email Gregory Hahn: firstname.lastname@example.org