Nothing to be Koi About
Mon. July 8, 2013 12:00 AM
by Rick Karlin
I am very picky when it comes to Chinese food. Let me rephrase that, I am picky about food, I am demanding when it comes to Chinese food. In my younger days, I lived with a Chinese family for a number of years. So, while I may be knowledgeable about food in general, when it comes to Chinese food I am even more discriminating. So, when I say Koi, located in downtown Evanston, offers authentic and excellently prepared Chinese cuisine, it is high praise. In addition to standard dishes you'll find on Chinese menus, Koi offers dishes that are more akin to the home-style Chinese cooking I enjoyed so many years ago.
The extensive menu offers dishes from the eight regions of China, which are as disparate as regional American cuisine. The food of the Shandong region of China is characterized by its emphasis on aroma, freshness, crispness and tenderness and was the choice of the royal court. Su or Jiangsu, from the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, is delicately elegant. Sichuan (or Szechwan) is known for its spicy flavors, while the lesser known food from the Hunan region is characterized by thick and pungent flavors. Cantonese and Guangdon flavors from the Yue region are most familiar to most Americans, while Hui cuisine focuses much more on braising and stewing. Fujian cuisine utilizes a great deal of seafood and is known for finely shredded ingredients. The northwestern section of China is represented by Dongbei cuisine, a "meat and potatoes" kind of food that tends to be heavier. The Muslim-influenced Uygur cuisine is a subset of this region. Of course, Beijing, being the most cosmopolitan area of China, incorporates all of these regional influences and is almost a separate cuisine itself.
Koi offers dishes from almost every region and, in fact, has a menu listing dishes by each cuisine. There is also a "Chinatown" menu, as well as extensive sushi offerings and fare more familiar to the American palate. How the kitchen manages to keep all these plates spinning and still do a superlative job is amazing. The fact that this wonderful food is available in a beautifully designed, modern dining room at reasonable prices is nothing less than miraculous.
On the night of our visit we began with the most expensive menu item of the evening, the lobster maki, which featured tempura fried lobster, cucumber, avocado, and lettuce topped with unagi sauce and four different kinds of tobiko. It is $20 and worth the indulgence (although I would have preferred that the lobster a little less finely chopped). Our other starter, from the main menu, is more indicative of the price point at Koi. The cold noodle salad featured perfectly al dente noodles in peanut sauce, flecked with pieces of chicken and fresh chopped herbs for $7. Not only was it delicious, but was a large enough serving for four to share as a first course or as an entrée for one.
We couldn't resist the crab meat/fish belly soup, from the Chinatown menu, which featured a rich, aromatic broth, with bits of Alaskan king crab meat, slivers of fish belly and cilantro. On the menu it says "for two", but it easily serves four.
We continued with the Chinatown menu for Chinese broccoli with pork sausage, which brought me right back to my days living with a Chinese family. Perfectly cooked Chinese broccoli arrived bathed in oyster sauce with slices of slightly sweet lap cheong sausage, ginger, garlic, green onions and a splash of rice wine. Sheer perfection. From the main menu, chow fun noodles with shrimp was also prepared perfectly. The thick rice noodles are pan-fried. Too often, the noodles are merely greasy; Koi's version is how this noodle dish should be served, with a crisp exterior, making way to a smooth center. The version we ordered included perfectly cooked plump shrimp.
Sesame Tofu (also available with meat) from the Su portion of the regional menu was a particular favorite. The cubes of tofu were crispy on the outside, silky on the inside, coated with a sweet peppered honey glazed sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. This dish, served on fried rice noodles, is one that will keep us coming back.
There is an extensive wine and cocktail list and some interesting desserts (the salted caramel layer cake is the way to go). Service is friendly, though not as efficient or attentive as it should be (our appetizers and soup arrived together and empty glasses weren't cleared until we asked for them to be taken away.) Minor quibbles, to say the least. Most entrees are in the $10-20 range and are large enough to share family style, making Koi, not only a place worth visiting, but economical enough to visit again and again, which I plan to do.