Recently, a few visits to some high quality restaurants in Berwyn, Illinois, proved that the neighbouring suburbs are becoming a food force with which to reckon. It was always a given that Oak Park had a lot of talent, one of the main reasons why I spend so much time there with my feet under some table. But I had forgotten about Chicago’s suburban neighbour to the north: Evanston. And during a visit with a schoolmate from high school and college, we sauntered over to a Pan-Asian restaurant Koi at 624 Davis Street, in downtown Evanston.
As we got to the door, it had occurred to me that I think I had seen Koi listed as a sister restaurant to Sushi House in Oak Park, Illinois. Well, I think I have. After the fifteenth visit, I had stopped counting how many time I had gone to Sushi House, so I was certain that I would have an experience at Koi that would be memorable enough to have me come back. There was the formula lounge feel with dim lights, straight edges to the décor, painfully attractive hostesses, and faint Brazilian jazz playing in the background.
Lucky for us, we had arrived before the theatre crowd. Forgetting that downtown Evanston is not like Mayberry, there is life after the sun goes down. There were several patrons who had come in a half hour after we had arrived and they were in a rush to have their meals before dashing off to see some show or cinema event. We had placed our orders and were snacking on the complementary edamame while imbibing wine and warm sake. Chilly outside, we were certain to be warm and toasty on the inside.
Now, with this restaurant catering to the palate that loves sushi and maki rolls, we had a balance of exciting, pedestrian, and commonplace. For the exciting maki roll, we had a volcano. The presentation alone was a work of art. What would have come out as a maki roll with imitation crab was one where we instead requested real crab. Sure there was a $2.00 additional charge, but there was no valid reason for us to deprive ourselves of the real thing. The spicy mayonnaise added a proper kick such that there was no need to put wasabi in the soy sauce. The misleading thing about the maki was that the leading meat in the recipe per the menu was crab. Instead, tuna was the stand-out meat. That was fine, but people who are sushi fanatics can flag such advertisement as false. However, we worked our chopsticks on the maki.
For the pedestrian, we had a California roll. Another university schoolmate had joined us and was adventurous yet with more reserve than my grade school friend and I were. And unlike most California rolls, again we requested real crab meat. We had no desire to gnash on meat extracted from imitation crabs. Where do you find them? Are they some McDonald’s product, like McNuggets and McRib? Is there such a thing? If there is, we could not speak to its flavour on this particular evening. The basic ingredients of crab, avocado, and cucumber were no different than what you have in any California roll. The thing is the flavour in real crab stands out more than the smack of the fabricated crab. My grade school friend had a Riesling that she said was a perfect match for the maki rolls. Our mutual friend and I had warm sake that took our minds completely off the fact that it was frosty and raining outside in London fashion.
The commonplace maki roll was shrimp tempura maki. Tempura shrimp, lettuce, avocado, cucumber, and three individuals applying chopsticks a notch or two less than relentless would be the best way to describe things. Again, we had another maki roll that looked more aesthetically pleasing than one would think as far as flavour goes. We had our moments of brief silence while directing our attentions on the previous two maki rolls, but the tempura shrimp maki resulted in impregnated silences. To the average person, it would have been uncomfortable. To the three of us, it was our way of acknowledging the goodness of what sat before us without us being verbal about it.
Then we entertained the Pan-Asian aspect of the restaurant. This was when I accepted the fact that Koi is not on a par with Sushi House, as the latter remains true to Japanese authenticity in its cuisine only. There was a plate of shrimp fried rice ordered. Filled with fresh, plump shrimp and bursting with flavour without any overcompensation, anyone could have seen that there were three very happy people at the table. I also have to admit when you can taste the egg in a dish, the real thing was used versus the out-of-the-carton what-not. This may be one of the very notable things that Koi should work without pause.
Where it really became evident that we were delighting ourselves a bit too much was when my schoolmate and I started speaking in Japanese while having shrimp lo mein. Neither one of us look anything relatively close to Asian, although my infectious smile results in a slant to my already-exotic eyes. Instead of lo mein sauce on the noodles, we had a Schezuan sauce. Again, plump shrimp sat under tasty noodles in sauce before we bit, chewed, and smiled.
Koi is a fantastic Pan-Asian restaurant. But it is advisable to go before the crowd starts because the tide of hungry patrons seemed to introduce a bit of scrambling to the wait staff. Some people could misinterpret the vacant attention to uncaring customer service when it is simply a case of being overwhelmed with a sudden influx of people coming in with various requests for this, that, and the other. Expect to pay a pretty penny. And while the service could become taxed due to a quick rush of customers, they are still gracious. The next time I go I shall not be so coy with my appetite. I shall request my very own little degustation so that I can try more from the menu. Yes, that coming after I have already listed the serious dishes we had during this visit.