Koi fond

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Lau­rel Glad­den The New Mex­i­can

Let’s get this out of the way: there’s no As­tro­Turf on the walls of the bath­rooms at Koi Res­tau­rant, the new ven­ture from chef Joel Cole­man, for­mer pro­pri­etor of the pop­u­lar but now-closed Mauka res­tau­rant on Agua Fría Street.

Peo­ple I know used to scoff at Swig, the bar that for many years oc­cu­pied the third floor of the build­ing at the corner of Palace and Grant av­enues (the space Koi par­tially oc­cu­pies). While a club fea­tur­ing min­i­mal­ist mod­ern dé­cor, trip-hop lounge mu­sic, pricey cock­tails, and quirky As­tro­Turf on the bath­room walls was cer­tainly hip and new in Santa Fe, that sort of es­tab­lish­ment had been trendy in New York at least a decade ear­lier. I couldn’t help but think, So what? No other bar in town was even try­ing to be so stylish and cool.

Much the same thing could be said about Koi. Cole­man flirts with molec­u­lar gas­tron­omy, and while you could ar­gue that that culi­nary trend is “so 2008,” no one else in Santa Fe is at­tempt­ing any­thing as ad­ven­tur­ous or cre­ative. Koi’s menu is short. You can as­sem­ble a lovely, sat­is­fy­ing meal from a va­ri­ety of small plates, tapas-style. In two vis­its, I was able to sam­ple nearly ev­ery­thing on the menu, yet I never walked out feel­ing stuffed.

Clever cre­ations like peper­oncini puree and olive pow­der al­low those clas­sic Greek salad com­po­nents to per­vade Cole­man’s ver­sion. Gems of melon “caviar” add bursts of fruit to clean, light hal­ibut ce­viche rolled in steamed Napa cab­bage. A kim­chi-ba­con vinai­grette ac­cents ten­der, opales­cent diver scal­lops, but Cole­man doesn’t leave it at that: he com­bines ba­con fat with mal­todex­trin to cre­ate what tastes like a fluffy, fatty ba­con cloud.

The kim­chi pan­cakes stand at the myth­i­cal cross­roads of salty, starchy, spicy, and sweet. The yolk of the per­fectly over-easy lo­cal egg draped on top was a gor­geous bur­nished orange. The pud­dle of maple crème anglaise of­fers just enough sweet­ness and essence of syrup to re­mind you that you are, af­ter all, eat­ing pan­cakes. The fin­ger­lings of pork and foie gras sausage were rich, mildly spicy, and nearly per­fect.

Other se­lec­tions hew more closely to what we think of as Asian — spring rolls (the pork fill­ing tast­ing light and al­most shaved), lo­cal veg­etable tem­pura (who knew bat­tered fried chard leaves could taste so amaz­ing?), beef and rice noo­dle salad, and sashimi. All have clean, full fla­vors; some have been given an in­ter­est­ing tweak; and many use re­gional in­gre­di­ents. Pollo Real chicken, River Canyon Ranch beef, and Shep­herd’s lamb play star­ring roles; lo­cal cheeses, beets, frisée, radishes, pota­toes, and toma­toes make cameos.

Koi of­fers thought­fully se­lected wines and beers — try the Bonny Doon Al­bar­iño or the laud­able Deschutes Mir­ror Pond Pale Ale — as well as a play­ful cock­tail menu that in­cludes ev­ery­thing from a mo­jito and a more-than-de­cent mar­garita to the clever, in­tense Salty Chi­huahua — a te­quila-based salty dog with a smoked-salt rim. The kim­chi-fla­vored bloody Mary, cou­pled with the kim­chi pan­cakes, might top the list of best brunch dishes ever.

The staff is at­ten­tive and friendly — on the nights I vis­ited, the host­ess in par­tic­u­lar was quite en­thu­si­as­tic — but not pushy. The space feels much the same as it al­ways has: min­i­mally stylish and full of light. Cur­tains of a dark preppy-ish stripe hang in the en­trance, though, and the fab­ric — which also cov­ers some cush­ions and pil­lows — feels heavy and out of place. You can opt to dine on the bal­cony, most of which faces west. Since you’re hav­ing a meal with­out green chile, ac­com­pany it with some­thing else New Mex­ico is fa­mous for: a breath­tak­ing sun­set.

The dessert list is brief, too. Pas­sion-fruit sor­bet gets twisted with a nori tu­ile and olive oil. Not-too-fruity peach ice cream gets a zingy lift from candied le­mon and pineap­ple “air”; but­tery short­bread stud­ded with smoky ba­con pulls it back to earth. My in­ner Girl Scout ap­pre­ci­ated the de­con­structed s’more: a crisp black-pep­per gra­ham cracker; toasted co­conut marsh­mal­low; a quenelle of salty, mousse-like choco­late; and a swipe of in­tense rasp­berry jam. Please try the Susana Balbo “Vir­tu­oso” late-har­vest Mal­bec dessert wine, which man­ages to jug­gle spice, tan­nins, and the sweet­ness of über-ripe cher­ries and plums.

No amount of trendy, con­ver­sa­tion-start­ing dé­cor will guar­an­tee the stay­ing power of an es­tab­lish­ment — ap­par­ently, even As­tro­Turf can wither and die. But Cole­man pos­sesses that rare com­bi­na­tion of cre­ativ­ity and true cook­ing skill, which means he could be around for the long haul. Here’s hop­ing.

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