First impressions are as important with restaurants as they are with people. When we stepped into Mai Vietnamese Cuisine in Cotati, I was delighted by the airy atmosphere, the traditional Vietnamese string instruments on the clean yellow walls and the warm greeting from the grandmotherly proprietor, Mrs. Mai.
A small bowl of dry roasted peanuts arrived at the table just seconds after we sat down. The menu has more than 60 choices, ranging from pho (beef noodle soup) to bun (dry noodles with, for example, barbecued pork). Mai has a strong vegetarian menu, with veggie spring rolls, stir-fries and rice plates.
My wife and I stopped there for a celebratory lunch the day after the election: she ordered pho tai, a beef noodle soup made with eye round steak. The soup's arrival was preceded by a plate of fresh cilantro, lime, bean sprouts, basil and jalapeño peppers to spice up the pho. As Mrs. Mai set down the bowl, the soup's aromas conveyed the rich, complex flavor of the broth, which hinted of star anise. The thin slices of beef were tender; the slender rice noodles were cooked to perfection. And the large bowl ($7.50) was enough for two meals.
I chose mi ga ($6.50), a mix of shredded chicken and nicely chewy egg noodles in a chicken broth. It was satisfying but didn't have the delectable interplay of flavors found in the beef noodle soup. We completed the meal with a pork and veggie stir-fry over steamed rice ($6.95). The broccoli, carrots and shiitakes were bright and crunchy, cooked at high heat for just the right amount of time.
After lunch, I walked around the restaurant as if it were a museum, admiring a set of four black lacquer pieces showing the traditional occupations in Vietnam: fishing, woodcutting, farming and herding. When I commented on the beauty of the guitars and lutes with their mother-of-pearl inlays, the owner showed me a CD and told me all the background music in the restaurant comes from bands that play these traditional instruments.
Most reviews mention at least one problem with the restaurant being evaluated, but during my first visit to Mai I couldn't find anything I'd change. Well, maybe one thing: I wish it were a bit closer to my Sebastopol home.
Mai Vietnamese Cuisine is located in Apple Valley Plaza on Highway 116 in the same center as Buffalo Billiards. 8492 Gravenstein Hwy., Cotati, Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-8pm. 707.665.9628.
Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.