Review: Delightful Mai Kitchen looks set to become Virginia-Highland favorite

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

Amid all the well-established dining spots in Atlanta’s historic Virginia-Highland neighborhood, the new Vietnamese restaurant Mai Kitchen has flown under the radar so far. But, its lovely cooking, wonderful cocktails and approachable prices should ensure it won’t remain a hidden gem for long.

The lack of fanfare is surprising given that the owner, Alex Kinjo, is a storied figure on the Atlanta dining scene. Kinjo and his sushi chef brother, Chris, built their MF Sushi brand into a minor empire, bankrupted it, then rebuilt it again.

Since opening the new MF Atlanta in 2015, Alex Kinjo steadily has developed an impressive portfolio of restaurants, including two other Vietnamese places: Anh’s Kitchen in Midtown and Pho Nam at Krog Street Market.

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Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

Mai Kitchen feels a bit more finished than Anh’s Kitchen did when it debuted at the end of 2017. The new restaurant, which opened in August, has the same straightforward, satisfying approach to Vietnamese cuisine, but the menu draws a few more exclamation points.

Among the starters, which take up the entire left half of the menu, the green mussels ($14 for four) stood out for their creativity. Baked on the half-shell with Japanese mayonnaise and eel sauce — and topped with scallions and masago, or smelt roe — the mussels had an impressive umami punch, as well as a richness reminiscent of oysters Rockefeller. The dish was impressive, not just because it tasted good, but because it felt so surprisingly familiar.

Another spectacular dish that used familiar flavors in a new application was the shaken tuna ($28). Prepared with a textbook-perfect sauce that you’d usually encounter on shaken beef, the dish instead featured incredibly tender, bite-size chunks of unctuous tuna. The medium-rare fish held its own beautifully against the mouthwatering sauce.

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Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

Vietnamese-style chicken wings ($12 for six) were nearly as flavorful as the tuna, glazed with a sticky-sweet sauce that also managed to be spicy and funky. Crisp imperial rolls ($14) nearly could be an entree on their own, served with lettuce wraps, noodles, pickled carrots and a seasoned vinegar sauce. Pho dac biet ($18), with rare beef, brisket and meatballs, did not try to reinvent the wheel, but hit all the right notes.

The cocktail program at Mai Kitchen was impressive, too, leaning heavily on tropical ingredients found in Vietnam. Mango can be a polarizing flavor, but it was put to excellent use in the mai-tee mango. The syrupy sweetness of the mango was cut with lime, serrano peppers and the even more polarizing cilantro. The lychee love was another standout, subtly sweetened by lychee liqueur, but with plenty of depth, thanks to an interesting green tea-flavored vodka.

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Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

Less impressive were the desserts, which consisted of an off-menu creme brulee and three different mousses: mango, passion fruit and green tea.

The mousses were fine, though not spectacular. Despite being served cold, they clearly required an effort, with the interestingly flavored mousse layered over a foundation of white cake and enrobed in a coating that matched the mousse.

The forgettable creme brulee was served in a small tart shell and seemed cold in some places and warm in others — like a dish that didn’t get heated up all the way in the microwave.

However, our quibbles with the desserts were minor amid two very good dining experiences featuring excellent service. On each visit, our servers were professional and personable, but also paid attention to small details. For example, my dining partner dropped a piece of noodle in her water glass. When our server next refilled our water, she noticed the out-of-place noodle and replaced the glass without a word. Those seemingly minor attentions helped ensure that we left with a warm and fuzzy feeling toward the restaurant.

As you would expect of a place run by a veteran restaurateur, Mai Kitchen feels confident, settled and mature. There are some exciting, winning dishes that will beckon to customers beyond the neighborhood, and the bar program, especially, is impressive.

I expect Mai Kitchen to become a long-term fixture in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood.

MAI KITCHEN

Food: Vietnamese

Service: professional and personable

Best dishes: shaken tuna, Vietnamese-style chicken wings, lemon grass tofu, baked green mussels

Vegetarian dishes: vegetarian tofu spring rolls, vegetarian tofu egg rolls, lemon grass tofu, ha long bay cellophane noodles, bok choy, tofu vermicelli noodles

Alcohol: full bar

Price range: $$

Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Fridays-Sundays

Parking: valet behind building

MARTA station: none

Reservations: yes

Outdoor dining: seasonal

Takeout: yes

Address, phone: 1040 N. Highland Ave., Atlanta. 404-907-4405

Website: instagram.com/maikitchenatl

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