Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Dinner for two with appetizers, drinks and desserts costs about $30 including tax and tip.
Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
There's a mystery about the Mai Flower that we can't figure out: where are the crowds? We've gone to this gracious little Vietnamese restaurant three times and it's been nearly deserted -- even on Friday night.
Maybe we're just missing all the fans by coincidence. Maybe most people in the area haven't discovered it yet. It's too bad, because Mai Flower is one of the best Vietnamese restaurants we've found for the price.
The atmosphere is, to put it mildly, a little quirky. The dining room is bordered with palm frond canopies, and the walls are covered with floor-to-ceiling photographic murals of a tropical beach at sunset. A fake rock fountain, apparently no longer used, sits by the front door, looking almost forlord, as if it wished someone would revive it with water. Vietnamese music, sung mostly in French, plays to an empty house.
But the food brings Mai Flower to life. Almost everything is deftly cooked, often grilled -- meats and chicken are almost always juicy; shrimp are never tough. Many dishes are sprinkled with a profusion of chopped nuts and cilantro or served with sheer ricepaper pancakes for wrapping.
The cooking is almost delicate: sauces are seldom greasy and even when dishes are spicy with red peppers, the spices just accent, they don't mask.
Some of the appetizers are especially good. Begin, perhaps, with hue spicy beef soup, a good strong beef broth full of scallions and bean sprouts and flecks of pepper. And try a refreshing cold appetizer we haven't seen before, a salad of spicy beef strips on a mound of shredded green papaya, which resembled cucumber, sparked with vinegar. Spring rolls are good, generously filled with pork (although a bit greasy). And surprisingly, egg rolls are better still.
You won't find pork meatballs (No. 44, nem nuong) listed under the appetizers, but we like to eat them that way -- they're like tiny porkburgers on wooden skewers, smoky-grilled, served with vernicelli noodles and shredded vegetables and rice paper pancakes. Don't bother with the stuffed crab claws.
We've tried almost a dozen main dishes and liked almost all. Vietnamese beef rolls (No. 10) are terrific -- slices of beef marinated with brandy, wrapped around celery and onion, then grilled. So in No. 12, tom nuong thit quay, perfectly crunchy shrimp and roast pork spirnkled with nuts. Also order seafood or chicken citronelle, Nos. 39 and 40, delicate, fiantly peppery curries. We aren't crazy about No. 45, sugar cane wrapped with shrimp paste that's spongy and a little greasy.
Because everything seemed made to order at Mai Flower, and because we've never seen more than two cooks in the kitchen, relax and let the dinner go slowly. Order a potent scorpion or a lighter mimosa made with champagne and orange juice to sip between courses (stay away from the pina colada, which tastes like a snow cone). We hope Mai Flower's modest charms catch on. For in a world with so many mediocre restaurants that somehow survive year after year, the Mai Flower deserves to flourish.