Feeling KOI About It: A Facelift and Updated Menu

There’s a Chinese revolution happening on Davis Street in Evanston.

First opened in 2003, Koi has been a long-time local favorite for Chinese, Thai and sushi, but it had gotten a bit stale. Management must have been feeling the pinch from nearby competitors Joy Yee’s, Lulu’s, Cozy Noodle and Pine Yard, because they’ve been making some changes, and you can feel the difference.

I’ve always found many of Koi’s dishes to be overly sweet, but I was enticed back by a never-ending stream of press releases touting their new menu, special cooking classes and new décor. And the result is an improvement.

Sushi and cocktails, always their strong suit, continues in the same vein, with some new signature maki rolls. We especially enjoyed the Casino Maki ($12 lunch/ $16.95 dinner), with shrimp tempura, crabmeat and unagi topped with avocado rather than seaweed, and drizzled with unagi sauce.

Other tempting newcomers include the Eggplant Maki, spicy white tuna with masago (bright orange-red roe), avocado and tempura crunch, wrapped in a strip of fried eggplant – very different, and Bruce’s Favorite Maki ($11/15.95), steamed lobster and red tobikko roe wrapped in soy paper, topped with avocado and finished with a garlic-cilantro sauce.

But it’s Chef Jack Wang’s Chinatown Menu that brought me here. Though we found the Peking Duck Bao ($11.95) lacking (the soft, steamed white buns were perfect, but the duck itself was dry), the Mapo Tofu ($8.95), a specialty of Chuan province, was terrific. Meltingly soft cubes of bean curd were tossed with sprightly Szechuan peppercorns, garlic and scallions and served in a spicy chili-black bean sauce and the zing of the peppercorns sang through.

The Walnut Prawns ($18.95), a Yue cuisine favorite, proved a little strange for my taste, although the ingredients were impeccable. A generous portion of big, crispy fried shrimp combined with carrots, snow peas, glazed walnuts, mixed with—and here’s where they lost me—a house-made citrus aioli was a little too sweet, and I couldn’t get past hot fried food in a creamy, cold mayonnaise.

Happily, Zhe cuisine delivered the goods with the Shanghai Ponzu Red Snapper ($25.95), a crispy whole fish in black vinegar-ponzu sauce. It was huge, but we polished it off. The meat stayed incredibly moist, and the sauce had just the right amount of vinegar.

Although we didn’t order the Shanghai Pig Shank ($18.95), the entire restaurant stopped and stared when it was delivered to a neighboring table. It reminded me of the beginning of the Flinstones, when the brontosaurus ribs tip over Fred’s car. It was at once prehistoric and impressive in girth.

The Dumplings ($4.95), available in beef or vegetable, pan-fried or steamed, are always a reliable choice, and the Twice-Cooked Green Beans ($5) that we ordered on the side were the perfect vegetable to complement the big fish. I also really appreciate when steamed brown rice is available as an option.

I’m not usually one to order dessert in a Chinese restaurant, especially when I know a fortune cookie is in my future. But the Passion Fruit Mousse ($7.50) surprised me. It was a gorgeous presentation—almost too pretty to eat—and it was delicious, creamy and tart, light and refreshing.

You might also consider stopping in to one of the chef’s monthly regional Chinese cooking classes, paired with an 8-course dinner, wines and sake, for only $45 per person. Upcoming Chef’s Table events are Thursday, December 15, January 19, February 23, March 22 and April 19. Each night features a different cuisine, with chef demo.

So maybe, like me, you haven’t yet given the new, improved Koi a try. You might want to reconsider.

3 out of 5 stars

624 Davis St.