Koi, the lavish new restaurant on La Cienega in the former Drai space, doesn‘t miss a Japanese design motif. Bonsai. Buddhas. Bamboo. Smooth round pebbles. Wide plank floors. Fire by water. Koi. Why, for a hot spot, it’s downright Zen.
On my first visit, we sit at the sushi bar. My idea. But what was I thinking? Well, Koi‘s menu is largely built around sushi, I love sushi, I thought it might be a good way to get to know the place. I might as well have asked to be seated next to the busiest waiters’ station, or the dishwasher. The sushi chefs are not interested in the pesky clients who sit at the bar; the chefs are far too busy with countless orders from the tables; they are assembly-line chefs, sushi machines. The sushi bar, it turns out, is really another design motif, and sitting there expecting a traditional give-and-take with a sushi chef is as inappropriate as prostrating yourself to the Buddha in the fish pond or actually practicing Zazen in the garden.
Occasionally, during the rare lull in his work, the chef closest to us glances over to see if we want anything. The non-sushi items we order arrive late or not at all; a bowl of miso soup is virtually dessert. A second beer never does show up at the table, although it does show up on the bill. We point this out to the waiter. “I‘ll bring it right now,” he says.
“No,” we say. “We’re going home right now.”
“It will take a while,” he warns us, but the revised bill doesn‘t take that long. Wordlessly, he shoves it in front of us. We thank him. Unable to mask his contempt for anyone who would fuss over a $5 beer, he rolls his eyes.
An apt conclusion to an overpriced, overdressed and underwhelming meal.
I mean, the sushi’s fine; the fish is fresh and high-quality — better, really, than it needs to be, since virtually everything we order is highly sauced or garnished. Albacore sushi, for example, comes with multiple toppings and awash in ponzu. An order of kanpachi sashimi, though a bit scanty, is beautifully presented with two kinds of shredded radish and seaweed. Expecting plain old vinegared rice, wasabi and a beautiful slice of fish here is like expecting white cotton briefs at La Perla. So, okay, we‘ll get into the swing and try one of those rolls the chef’s been making by the half-dozen: baked crab in tofu skin. It‘s just fine, lots of crab, nothing to challenge the average Western palate. Kobe beef sushi, the meat seared and sauced, is tasty but not particularly tender — and at $7 a mouthful, it should induce at least momentary euphoria.
On another visit to Koi, the service is delightful — a lively waitress, attentive busboys. We sit out on the back patio, with its swaying bamboo, its soothing running water, its retractable awnings. This really is a drop-dead-gorgeous restaurant. Too bad the menu is one more example of MatsuhisaRokuCal-Asian pretension. The salmon-skin salad is that standard lettuce mix with a scattering of baby tomatoes, and what tastes like yesterday’s once-crisp salmon skins. Better, but still remarkably average, is a warm baby spinach and mushroom salad, which comes slightly wilted, with a lemony ponzu dressing. The only appetizer we love is the shishito, those roasted Japanese peppers, and they‘re good everywhere. Sweet ginger tofu is simply a rip-off: $8 for three slim squares of blandly sauced, slightly tough fried tofu. Then again, money (or at least plastic) is clearly no object with the flashy, well-heeled crowd that appears to have moved over, en masse, from the now-defunct Le Colonial.
Koi’s signature dishes are high-concept novelties. Spicy seared albacore with crispy onions pairs a mild, soft fish with addictive fried-till-dry onions. Seared tuna with Japanese salsa (chopped tomatoes and peppers in a ponzu-like base) pairs a meatier fish with a quenching juiciness and a tower of avocado. Pan-roasted duck breast is sliced and served on a bed of yuzu peppers, which are indistinguishable from the shishito, of which we have eaten our fill. The marinated black cod, another dish that‘s always pretty good everywhere, is here actually on the borderline of bad: It’s small and underflavored. Tempura is heavily battered and on the greasy side, though the vegetables themselves are fresh and cooked nicely al dente.
Desserts don‘t even sound good — white-chocolate cheesecake, mocha creme brulee — so we order only the standard molten-chocolate cake and split it four ways. It’s just fine.
Koi‘s presentations are showy, but the portions are modest. Upon leaving, we’re still so hungry that, with virtually no discussion, we walk right across the street to Alto Palato, sit in the lounge area and order a full round of desserts. This is, hands down, the best part of the evening.
730 N. La Cienega Blvd.; (310) 659-9449. Open nightly for dinner. Entrees $12–$32. Full bar. AE, D, DC, MC, V.