Koi’s plate-lickingly great menu has been right under your nose
Sat, Dec 1, 2012 (7:14 p.m.)
Vegas, we have a problem. We’re spoiled. Really, really spoiled. Because our city is a global destination, our restaurant scene is embarrassingly flush. With next big things and endless reinventions, it’s impossible to know what you’re missing.
That’s especially true when it comes to Asian food. Our Valley is an American stronghold for excellent Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese cuisine. Among local purveyors of fine Japanese dining, Koi has quietly impressed in a corner of Planet Hollywood for five years. With outposts in LA, New York and Bangkok, it’s a battle-tested brand known for honoring Japanese culinary tradition as well as pushing the fusion concept, mostly with “modern California accents.” I grew up in California, and Japanese food is the great love of my life. Do the math.
Last Thursday, a friend and I crossed the Koi threshold for the first time, the hum and bustle of the casino dissolving mysteriously behind us. The space includes several stylish lounges and dining areas, but we beelined to the sushi bar in the main room—the only place for omakase, which means “I’ll leave it to you.” It’s a fancier way of saying “chef’s choice,” and we were eager to leave it to head sushi chef Tomo Kojima, who’s been with the restaurant since it opened. His bar is on the perimeter of a gracefully twisting room of dark wood and stone, champagne-colored upholstery and purple and white orchids. The light is soft but not stingy, the better to see the beauty on the plate.
- Planet Hollywood, 454-4555.
- Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-11:30 p.m.
The $50, eight-course omakase menu—available through December 25— is the easiest and thriftiest way to experience the artistry coming out of the sushi bar and the kitchen, helmed by executive chef Tim Horrock. The artistry coming out of the cocktail bar isn’t included in the omakase price, but the signature drinks are just as reasonable. My date (whose wife hates fish) chose the Green Leaf, and I went with the unfortunately named Kiss from a Rose (both $12). Our server joked that while it may be the worst Seal song ever, the concoction doesn’t disappoint. The sharpness of fresh lemon and Hendricks gin with the perfume of lychee puree and rose syrup proved her right. The Green Leaf also has unconventional appeal, going for a tangier, brisker spin on cucumber and vodka. It features Effen Cucumber as the base spirit, with fresh shiso (Japanese mint), lime and a splash of sparkling Zipang sake. Someone at Koi obviously understands that the beverage menu should reinforce and celebrate the food.
And Kojima obviously understands that some sushi lovers have developed insatiable appetites for the paper-thin pickled ginger that comes on the side. He gave us piles of the stuff and replenished throughout the meal. Ginger is a palate cleanser, but I shamelessly adore dipping it in soy sauce with way too much wasabi and feeling the rush of heat/salt/sweet in my sinuses and throat. I also use chopsticks when I should be using my hands. My date rightly picked up the first course with his fingers, a bite of lobster salad on sushi rice with a nori (dried seaweed) wrap and garnish of Granny Smith apple and black caviar. The fish and fruit were expertly julienned so the butter-sweet and tart flavors could really mingle under the briny pop of the eggs.
Next was “Hamachi Fusion.” Yellowtail tuna is one of the most beautiful fish to serve raw, as the grain of the flesh and its pale-pink sheen are exceedingly delicate. It chews like silk, and the smooth flavor finishes with ocean-y bite. Kojima lets these qualities shine, slicing the fish thin, drizzling it with a sauce of soy, yuzu (Japanese lemon) and truffle essence, with fresh jalapeño on top and a side-bite of seaweed salad and radish.
It would have been my favorite dish were it not for the salmon carpaccio, which Kojima said is his favorite item on the omakase menu. Four perfectly marbled and expertly sliced slabs of raw king salmon are served in a luxurious bath of black truffle oil and citrus soy sauce, with truffle shavings and a neat pinch of micro-greens on top. My date said it best: “That’s a plate-licker right there.”
The chef’s menu continued with tempura-fried kabocha (Japanese pumpkin). Tempura is a ubiquitous Japanese dish, thus making it one of the best gauges of a Japanese restaurant. Horrock’s crew nailed this basic, from the light, crispy breading to the velvety, piping-hot squash inside. It didn’t need a drop of the ponzu dipping sauce, which I zealously use to drown mediocre tempura at other places that don’t give it as much care.
Going from ubiquitous to unique, the kitchen then hit us with a trio of Koi’s signature Crispy Rice. Imagine a nigiri-size knuckle of sushi rice infused with soy and pan-fried until the inside is soft and almost juicy and the outside is caramelized. By itself it’s addicting, and topped with rare Kobe beef and a dab of aioli, spicy tuna and jalapeño or yellowtail tartare and tempura flakes, it’s one of the most inventive things you’ll eat this year.
The sixth course could have been dessert. Unagi (barbecued freshwater eel) is already fatty and decadent, but this bite was lacquered with sticky-sweet eel sauce and foie gras. It sings. And if you’ve ever made sushi at home, you know how impossible it is to segment and drape eel as gorgeously as Kojima does. The kitchen’s last savory item also had great presentation, the pink medallions of ginger-glazed duck fanned over charred shishito peppers and speckled with tiny greens and jewels of fresh pomegranate. Like every dish that came before, it was balanced and delicious.
The final omakase course is one of my all-time favorites. Three ice cream flavors—mango, strawberry and chocolate—balled and wrapped inside tender mochi, a chewy rice-flour sweet that’s in its own category. All we could do was look at each other and nod in understanding. This was one for the books.
If you’d rather control your own fate at Koi, the dinner menu is full of winners. For a really playful take on fusion, try the lobster “tacos” of succulent meat mixed with tobiko (flying fish roe) and spicy dressing and topped with mango salsa, yuzu guacamole and scallion inside a crispy wonton shell. Another tempura standout, the creamy rock shrimp is great served on endive as well as in a soy-paper hand roll (this is why mayo exists in Japanese restaurants!). For a heartier option, the truffled lamb chops with shishito mashed potatoes are killer, but my favorite cooked dish is a humble soup of soybean dumplings, pickled red onion and shiitake and enoki mushrooms in a broth of mirin rice wine and mushroom dashi. It’s the least fancy thing I’ve tried, and I can’t get it out of my head. Koi is just that good.