Restaurant Review: Taste real Chinese food at Koi

  • Salt and pepper squid: A slightly crunchy exterior covers tender chewy squid inside. (Amber Gibson/The Daily Northwestern)
  • Silky tofu and dover sole in chili oil: Serve this spicy dish over brown rice for a wonderful mix of textures and flavors. (Amber Gibson/The Daily Northwestern)
  • Baby bok choy: This Chinese vegetable makes a light crisp side dish. (Amber Gibson/The Daily Northwestern)
  • Xiao long bao: Not the best, but if you can’t make it to California for Ding Tai Fung, it’ll have to do. (Amber Gibson/The Daily Northwestern)

Amber Gibson, Columnist
November 12, 2012 •

Evanston has its fair share of Asian restaurants, but Koi, 624 Davis St., might be the best of the bunch. When it comes to Chinese food, I’m a harsh critic. I’m half Chinese, and my grandparents were both excellent at making authentic Chinese dishes like spicy twice-cooked pork, mapo tofu and zong zi, or bamboo rice wraps. My mom continues the cooking tradition, so I'm spoiled when it comes to Chinese cuisine.

Although Koi offers both Chinese dishes and Japanese sushi, I’d skip the sushi entirely and go straight for the Chinese menu. The Chinese dishes are broken up by eight regions, with several dishes per region, so you can decide if you’d rather try Hunan, Fujian or Cantonese food. The fact that Koi acknowledges and understands the differences between regional cuisines immediately puts them at an advantage over Joy Yee’s Noodles, where diners are greeted by an overwhelming hodgepodge of more than 100 mediocre dishes from which to choose.

On a cold winter day, warm up with one of the soups for two. The Alaskan king crab and fish belly soup is my favorite, with generous helpings of seafood. The xiao long bao, however, did not live up to my admittedly sky-high expectations. The last time I had these precious soup dumplings was at Din Tai Fung Dumpling House in Arcadia, Calif., arguably the best place in the world for this delicacy. Our waiter said Koi made their dumplings in house, though, so I had to give them a try. The wheat skin of the "bao" was too thick, the pleats of the dumpling not nearly as precise and the pork meatball and broth inside weren’t as flavorful as Din Tai Fung’s.

Entrees were much better. Salt-and-pepper crispy squid had a perfect, lightly fried exterior, allowing the tender fresh squid to shine. The dish is garnished with jalapeno peppers, diced green and red pepper and cucumber slices. These were surprisingly addictive, and with so many other salt-and-pepper dishes on the menu, including shrimp, smelt fish and pork chops, it seems like they’ve perfected the art.

Silky tofu with dover sole fish filet was also a delight, drenched in a slightly spicy chili oil sauce with bean paste, soy, sugar, garlic and green onions. The silken bean curd had a comfortingly smooth texture, slipping right down your throat. Mix the tofu and sauce with brown rice for better traction if you’re eating with chopsticks. Soft tofu on its own can be a nightmare to wrangle.

Eating at Koi can be an enlightening experience for those whose knowledge of Chinese food is limited to Panda Express, and it even offers some familiar foods from home for Chinese international students.

This might be the highest compliment to Koi, though — next time my mom visits, I'll even bring her.

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