How lucky are the landlocked who, despite distance from deep seas, still have so many sushi options that they can parse the pros and cons of sushi bars with the precision of Chef Morimoto extricating a poison sac from a blowfish!
Such is the becoming the case in Music City, where the sushi rolls — and rolls — are growing and raw fish aficionados are pledging allegiance to their favorites, from longtime mainstays Koto and Sonobana (née Benkay), to relative newcomers Zumi and GoGo. From Sam's downtown to Peter's in Brentwood and Ken's and Ginza in between.
Yet while there are flashes of ingenuity in the unorthodox rolls at Samurai and hints of upscale sophistication at Virago — to name a couple of standouts — for the most part Middle Tennessee sushi swims in a limited band of styles and ingredients, clinging close to the safe shores of California rolls and crunchy shrimp.
With such similarity across the genre, comparisons often come down to freshness, service, atmosphere and pricing. Koi Sushi & Thai, the new pan-Asian establishment down the block from The Melrose Pub, scores high in all those categories.
The second nameplate of owner Hang Bui and her family (the first Koi is in Franklin), the Franklin Road outpost specializes in sushi, Thai curries and Vietnamese pho. The dark, cavernous storefront dining room is outfitted with booths and tables, as well as stationary tables with built-in benches and pillows that appear to invite lounging after the meal. (That said, while the plump triangular wedges lend coziness and color to the sleek atmosphere, can we all agree not to recline unless all diners on adjoining benches explicitly endorse the transition from upright to recumbent? Thank you.)
At the back of the room, a bar — for sushi and booze — displays a broad array of alcohols, along with two muted televisions that were broadcasting a silent medley of sports and infomercials on our visits. The defining visual element is a collection of oversize high-gloss panels by Vietnamese-born painter John Hung Ha, whose vibrant images of fish underscore the aquatic theme that plays out so well on Koi's sushi menu.
In addition to the paper menus of curries, phos and straightforward nigiri for raw-fish-and-rice purists, a glossy, full-color and spiral-bound menu of sushi rolls catalogs near-endless permutations of tuna, salmon, crabstick, yellowtail, eel, tempura, cucumber, avocado, smelt roe, white fish, cream cheese, eel sauce and spicy mayo. The photographs are tantalizing, the combinations intriguing, and the decisions overwhelming. Rather than agonize over the options, you might as well close your eyes and point to a page, because without exception all our selections were beautifully constructed and arranged, with noticeably fresh ingredients in thoughtful balance of warm and cool, creamy and crisp, savory and sweet.
Or you might try this strategy: Assuming you like all the fundamentals of fish, rice and seaweed, then simply scan the menu for an ingredient that tickles your fancy. This is the equivalent of choosing your entrée based on the sides, but it can lead to some unexpected new favorites. For example, we saw the word "coffee," so we ordered the Columbian Crunch, which lacquered buttery seared tuna with a subtle hint of coffee reduction. Meanwhile, the promise of brie with tempura crab, tuna and mango lured us toward the Orchid Roll, just to see if the earthy mold of an aged cheese could play well with subtle notes of fish and fruit. For better or worse, someone substituted cream cheese for the triple crème; in any case, the Orchid's deft combination of flavors, textures and colors emerged as a favorite. On return trips, we'll explore other inventions, such as the fruit roll, with strawberry, mango and pecans. Or the Godzilla, with fried oyster, crab, cucumber and honey mustard.
It will be the large, well-priced rolls of excellent quality and creativity that will draw us back to Koi. But as the subhead "Sushi & Thai" implies, there's more to Koi than fish — a point that will make the eatery a convenient middle ground for dining groups with varying levels of seafood-friendliness and raw-readiness. Pad Thai and panang emerged piping hot, glistening from the pan and loaded with vegetables that retained a stir-fried crispness, while bento boxes bulged with Japanese-inspired choices of tender chicken teriyaki, dumplings, crisp tempura and California rolls, accompanied by soothing miso soup and crisp, cool iceberg salad with ginger dressing.
While those predictable staples didn't exactly rewrite the playbook of popular pan-Asian fare, we did stumble across an excellent discovery in the basil salmon — pan-seared sushi-grade salmon on a pretty stack of vegetables, topped with finely minced and caramelized garlic, in a nutty-floral bath of coconut sauce laced with basil. The only real misstep was the so-called "froggie tempura" — a dish as unappealing as its name, with thick leg-warmers of batter wrapped around amphibian femurs that all too convincingly mimicked the taste and texture of water-logged chicken. Sorry, Kermit.
So, back to our score sheet: On freshness and atmosphere, Koi gets high marks, not to mention degree-of-difficulty bonus points for creativity. But what about the other key variables? When it comes to price, Koi generally swims with the school. (That said, we were delighted to find lunchtime bento box deals in the $7 range.)
However, when it comes to differentiating itself, Koi brings a distinct advantage to the table. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner seven days a week. That convenience, coupled with the food quality, atmosphere and value, could help make Koi a big fish in a growing pond of sushi, particularly on Sundays.
Koi Sushi & Thai opens at 11 a.m. daily.
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