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.