In a city flooded with big-box Asian-themed restaurants, Koi arrived relatively late. As Frank Bruni put it in his zero-star review 2½ years ago:
Koi recreates a popular, buzz-bedecked establishment with the same name and same principal owner in Los Angeles, and it belongs to a well-worn Japanese genre that includes, in Manhattan, Megu, Geisha, Ono, Matsuri and En Japanese Brasserie. These restaurants invest in flashy design, mix colorful cocktails and construct menus that hedge any daring bets with the safety of sushi rolls and versions of dishes popularized by Nobu, the less flamboyant, more dependable sire of this expanding brood.
I didn’t bother with Koi back then, but when I was looking for something new to try in Madison Square Garden’s general vicinity, suddenly its moment had come.
Our visit to Koi almost didn’t happen. I booked on OpenTable for 5:30 p.m., but the restaurant was closed when we arrived: the Bryant Park Hotel staff told us that Koi wouldn’t open until 6:00. We took a twenty-minute walk, and when we returned they were open. The snafu was never explained, but we headed off to our table and were out in plenty of time for a 7:30 show.
Early critics complained about a “you need us more than we need you” attitude and music so loud you could barely think straight. Thankfully, none of that was on display last Friday evening, either because management actually learned something from the reviews, or because Koi’s fifteen minutes of hotness are up. I suspect it’s the latter. We saw families with small children, and our server asked, “Where y’all from?” I suspect that most of the patrons now are tourists.
As at Nobu and other restaurants of its ilk, the menu at Koi is mostly “small plates,” which you’re encouraged to share, along with standard offerings of sushi, sashimi, and rolls. Our server was well informed about the menu and provided patient guidance.
We started with a trio of appetizers. Tuna Tartare ($15; above left) with avocado and crispy wontons was as good a preparation of that dish as any in town. Our server steered us to Crispy Rice topped with spicy tuna ($16; above center), but we weren’t as wowed by it as he was. I believe the third appetizer was the Creamy Rock Shrimp Tempura ($17; above right), which had a nice cruncy–spicy texture.
The so-called “signature rolls” at Koi avoid some of the usual clichés. My son was pleased with a shrimp roll ($16; above left), which had the shrimp outside the rice, instead of the opposite. A Baked Crab hand roll ($9; above right) had a doughy wrapping, rather than the usual rice paper, but it was a bit bland.
The better items on the menu are good enough to make Koi a solid standout in the neighborhood, but it’s not really distinct enough to be a destination.
Koi (40 W. 40th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, West Midtown)