Food & Drink

Review: The chef at Koi Grill & Sushi sets the tone to showcase his masterful sushi skills

The sashimi plate at Koi Grill & Sushi in Raleigh.
The sashimi plate at Koi Grill & Sushi in Raleigh. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Just inside the door, you’re greeted by the gentle splash of water as it spills from a bamboo pipe into a koi pond edged in smooth stones. Beyond, the dining room is a pastiche of muted natural hues: walls and ceiling clad in honeyed pine, a narrow rock garden running down the center of the room, here a stone lantern, there a splash of potted greenery. The effect — part zen garden, part Japanese tea room — is warmly inviting and utterly charming.

But the key element in setting the tone for a meal at Koi Grill & Sushi is a fixture you won’t find among the restaurant’s furnishings. And make no mistake, owner/chef Jason Chow is a fixture in the best sense of the word: He’s always there. You’ll recognize him by his black sushi chef’s hat and his ever-present smile.

If he’s working behind the sushi bar (where you’ll find him most evenings), by all means go for the sushi. Chow has logged 13 years mastering the craft, including four under the esteemed Masa-san at Waraji, the Japanese restaruant in North Raleigh. His skill is evident in everything his knife touches, from an unassuming chirashi bowl of assorted sashimi scattered over sushi rice to an elaborate six course omakase.

The chef’s experience yields dividends, too, in the form of relationships he has established over the years with suppliers of fish from around the globe, from Scotland (ocean trout) to New Zealand (king salmon) to Japan, his go-to source for several species.

Even BOGO special rolls, too often characterized by cutting corners elsewhere, are a safe bet here. Be sure to make one of them the signature Koi roll, Chow’s riff on a classic rainbow roll whose wrapper of of tuna, salmon, yellowtail and avocado contains an equally colorful interior of smoked salmon, shrimp and cucumber.

But there’s a catch. As is often the case with startups, the owner goes where he’s needed, whether it’s the kitchen or the front of the house. In his absence, sushi becomes an iffy proposition marked by uneven knife work and poorly constructed maki that fall apart when you pick them up.

The good news is that sushi accounts for only half of Chow’s culinary background. Born in Malaysia, he cooked a variety of Asian cuisines, from the street food of his native country to Cantonese dim sum, as he traveled across Asia and eventually to New York before donning the sushi chef’s cap for the first time.

If you don’t see Chow behind the sushi bar, then, it’s a good idea to follow him (figuratively speaking) to the kitchen. There, you’ll find the chef and his crew cooking up a menu that spans the continent from Singapore noodles to Mongolian beef. Separate sections dedicated to poke bowls, ramen and pho make it clear that the chef’s recent focus on sushi hasn’t prevented him from keeping up with the times.

That goes for the appetizer list, too, where you’ll find all the usual suspects, from crab Rangoon to Bang Bang shrimp, under the Small Plates heading. Sichuan dumplings are a better bet than scallion pancakes, which can be doughy and oily. Better still are Korean fried chicken wings, crunchy beneath a glaze of spicy-sweet sauce.

You’ll find some two dozen main course options under the headings of Classic Plates (a dozen listings ranging from moo goo gai pan to Thai basil duck) and Entrees — kung pao, broccoli stir fry and variations on the Thai coconut curry theme, to name a few, all available with your choice of protein. Both come with jasmine or brown rice and your choice of a house salad, miso, hot and sour or egg drop soup.

Hibachi-grilled specialties get their own dedicated category, and deservedly so. Choose chicken, shrimp or Angus steak, prepared soy-glazed teppanyaki or teriyaki-style. The soy-glazed teppanyaki steak I enjoyed recently could hold its own with a good Japanese steakhouse. Regardless of which protein you choose, opt for the fried rice over the hibachi egg noodles, which are prone to clumped-together dry spots.

Service is welcoming and attentive, by and large, though the occasional lapse can result in a dish arriving at a less-than-ideal temperature.

If you’ve ever eaten at Peking Garden, the Chinese restaurant that called this address home for two decades before Koi took over the space in April, you’ll recognize that the new restaurant’s decor is largely inherited from its predecessor. With a few tweaks, Jason Chow has managed to transform the space into a suitable backdrop for showcasing his sushi skills. As it happens, it’s a pleasant setting regardless of which part of Koi’s pan-Asian offering you choose to explore.

Koi Grill & Sushi

126 E. Millbrook Road, Raleigh

919-848-4663

koisushiraleigh.com

Cuisine: sushi, pan-Asian

Rating: 2 1/2 stars

Prices: $$-$$$

Atmosphere: zen garden meets Japanese tea room

Noise level: low

Service: welcoming and attentive with occasional lapses

Recommended: sushi (when chef Chow is behind the bar), Korean fried chicken wings, green Thai curry shrimp, teppanyaki steak

Open: Lunch Sunday-Friday, dinner nightly.

Reservations: accepted

Other: beer, wine and sake; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking in lot.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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