The Seventh Dimension

Mai Village boasts the best part of Vietnam's food, art, and architecture, and its long meals with family

The beef-wrapped onion wedge ($5.25) is another standout, in which thin slices of well-marinated beef are rolled around strips of fresh onion, the whole thing grilled until roasty and served coated with a thick dusting of chopped peanuts, fresh scallions, and leaves of cilantro. It's meaty, nutty, dusky, rich. Wonton soup ($4.25 small, $5.95 large) has homemade pale wontons that look like sails lazily unfurling in the bowl. Pop one in your mouth and it tastes nice and simple in the best way. The meatball soup ($3.95/$5.25) features those concentrated, dense little half-meatballs that are made with roasty, toasty fried onions, and they bob charmingly about in their broth, all but promising to be there for you no matter how stormy the weather.

If the weather is good, however, I can't recommend the seven-course beef dinner, Bo 7 Mon, enough. It costs $16.95 a person, and provides about two hours' entertainment, as you work your way through so many beef courses you'll wonder if you've accidentally joined the Atkins revolution. First is a light and vinegary salad of thin slices of beef with shredded cabbage. Then you get a plate of thinly sliced raw beef; another with lots of lettuce leaves, herbs, and those sweet marinated carrots; another with spring-roll wrappers. An individual catering stove is set in the middle of the table, a pot of broth is boiled, and as it steams you get to make a Vietnamese fondue, filling your own spring rolls with your newly boiled beef. A plate of sweet, rich, grilled meatloaflike meatballs follows; they're made particularly rich, dense, and flavorful by the addition of lots of minced mushrooms and peanuts.

Minced beef rolled into grape leaves and grilled over charcoal is next; the charred salty leaves take on an espresso sort of edge, lending a particularly appealing character to this dish. And then, when you think you can't enjoy any more beef, you do! The tabletop stove returns, this time fitted with a domed grill, on which you set slices of thin, sweet marinated steak--it grills up with an almost fruity edge. Marvelous. (This is also available on its own, as "marinated beef on griddle, bo nuong vi," for $12.95.) And then when you think you are absolutely stuffed with beef, another sort of meatball appears, and then a marvelous congee, a lemony rice soup with just a few crumbles of beef to give you bragging rights for having eaten seven, seven, seven! courses of beef.

A homecoming of sorts: St. Paul's Mai Village
Kathy Easthagen
A homecoming of sorts: St. Paul's Mai Village

This Bo 7 Mon is a kind of Sunday supper in Vietnam, the kind of meal you have not when company's coming over, but when you really want to relax and chat away the hours. And I predict it will soon become a cult favorite among both culinary thrill-seekers and budget-hounds--$16.95 for seven courses? Heavens.

The back page of Mai Village's menu offers the restaurant's most ambitious (and expensive) offerings. My favorite was the steamed walleye, which sounded steep at $21.95, but when a giant platter bearing a whole, foot-long fish was set down I realized that this is another dish that is in fact sized for at least two people, and it's really meant as a dish to share among four or six. The fish comes in a sweetened ginger-soy sauce enhanced with shiitake mushrooms, black mushrooms, crumbles of marinated pork, and fresh scallions, and is tender as rain. You eat it in the Vietnamese way, the firm fish tucked into lettuce leaves with all the fixings. Very nice.

Ban Nguyen, one of the family's sons and the restaurant's executive chef, recently completed a stint at Le Cordon Bleu, and this back page shows many of the influences of cooking school, offering dishes like chicken roulade and salmon in Chardonnay. I skipped those, but my experiences with a strange overcooked lobster in black bean sauce ($26.95) and a far too sweet version of grilled Cornish game hen ($16.95) would lead me to recommend that you stick to the more obviously Vietnamese dishes. The restaurant also offers a number of chow-mein hut classics that I didn't try.

But you know what? While all of these details of kitchen and architecture matter, the heart of what's really big here is simply the really big hearts--of Mr. Dang, of Mrs. Nguyen, of all the kids, and of the darn enterprise.

I mean, the first few times I went to the restaurant, Mr. Dang, a dapper little slip of a man who has the strained and exultant look of someone who's been the strong man supporting a pyramid of acrobats for half a century, Mr. Dang was circling the rooms, greeting each and every table, recounting hard-won battles with far-off craftsmen, pointing out details of menu, planting design, and chair-making. You'll please note that the chairs are sturdy American oak, adorned with delicate Vietnamese carvings, something like the base we see nowadays of sturdy St. Paul adorned with the grace of Vietnamese cooking and culture. He would explain how his various children had pitched in, refinancing their houses, working full-time for free, recruiting friends to work for free. He would worry about service, about whether customers were having a good enough time, he'd worry in the happy, dazed way I associate mainly with fathers of the bride at big weddings.

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