Looking for some good, traditional Chinese food? Skip the trip to Chinatown and head to in nearby Evanston.
I’ve been to the spot at 624 Davis St. a few times since it opened seven years ago while I was a student in Northwestern. I’d taken advantage of its lovely décor for a Valentine’s Day date, spacious back room for hosting big groups and enjoyed their great drink specials with friends. But it had been more than a year since their announcement of a new look and menu brought me in to reexamine the restaurant.
I’ve always enjoyed the very laidback but elegant feel of Koi, and was happy that the style has just been improved, rather than changed. The alterations are subtle, with chairs going from wood to black leather and the addition of Chinese art, including an image of a somewhat angry looking fish flying through the sky. The front area by the fireplace, formerly just a space to wait for a table, now serves as particularly cozy seating. The addition of new upholstered stools also makes the bar a comfortable place for drinks and conversation.
Our relationship with our server started out a bit rocky. We knew we wanted to try some cocktails and the Peking duck bao, one of the new regional Chinese items, so placed an initial order while we continued to peruse them menu. When our server came back with our drinks, we asked for suggestions but seemed to be getting steered towards the safest choices like orange beef or general tao’s chicken.
Things improved remarkably when I asked him how the ponzu red snapper was. If I wasn’t afraid of having a fish head staring at me from my plate, he decided I could handle anything on the menu and became freer with his opinions, suggesting his favorite dishes along with wine and sake pairings.
The bao made a great starter. Rather than traditional buns, the fluffy dough is formed into a taco shape, with pieces of the tender meat tucked inside and served with a light covering of green onions and a sweet plum sauce to spoon on.
Along with the new Chinese dishes, Koi continues to offer an excellent selection of signature maki rolls. We went with our server’s suggestion and tried the dragon fire maki. The large roll features shrimp tempura topped with salmon, white tuna, tobiko and green onion, which is baked and served warm. Our server brought it out with the advice that it should be enjoyed with the spicy sauce it’s covered in, so we shouldn’t “ruin it” by dipping it in soy and wasabi. He accompanied it with a pair of glasses of light sake, more reminiscent of white wine than the bitter flavors I often associate with the Japanese spirit. It worked perfectly with the food, and we obeyed his advice. I’d been a little leery of warm sushi, but the roll was fantastic, with the heat helping to activate the sauce’s kick, which brought out rather than overwhelmed the tastes of the fresh fish.
Our snapper arrived soon after we finished the roll. The large, whole fish is served on a bed of crisp red and green diced peppers in a sweet and sour sauce. The fish is lightly fried, with the mild meat flaking away easily. It again paired perfect with the glass of spicy red zinfandel our server brought us. We barely managed to finish half of it, taking the rest of it home as leftovers.
We did save some room for dessert, and since our server hadn’t led us astray yet, took his recommendation and went with the layered chocolate mousse, which turned out to be more like delicious ice cream cake than what I normally associate with mousse. We shared the slice along with a pot of tea, which our server attentively kept refilling with hot water. Koi’s has a successful run so far, but its ability to continue to refresh itself bodes well for its future staying power.
Have you been to Koi? What did you think? Tell us in the comments.