Every day, throngs stand patiently amid the traffic of Times Square just to buy half-price tickets to a Broadway show. Others sit on the L.I.E. for hours to reach their earthly version of the Promised Land, East Hampton. To snare three pairs of Roger Vivier pumps at a sample sale, women do things that would make former roller-derby queens shudder. But what are you willing to endure for a good meal? Unruly crowds? A crushing din? A sneering doorman? That meal is waiting for you at Koi.
40 W. 40th St. (in the Bryant Park Hotel), nr. Fifth Ave; 212-921-3330
Koi’s kitchen revels in, and often excels at, reproducing the alluring and inventive sauces and marinades that are the hallmark of its original outpost in Los Angeles, where reservations are as hard to come by as shots of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie together. There’s sushi of superior freshness and clarity, including the kind of crisp, tight, hand-cut specialty rolls that Californians crave with the same gusto they do Juicy Couture. No matter how many rhapsody-inducing Japanese restaurants have opened in the past year, it’s still a thrill to encounter Koi’s hamachi basted with soy citrus and a dash of truffle essence, to bite into a ball of crackling grilled rice topped with spicy tuna, to lick the basil-ponzu dressing on a generous hunk of albacore, or to savor a tender quivering jumbo scallop perfumed with lemon.
If you’ve grown accustomed to the crisp tempuras of Nobu or Honmura An, Koi’s softer, doughier variation won’t impress much. But those marinades will. Sriracha, a glaze of mild Asian chili paste, shallots, ginger, lemon, sherry vinegar, and a flash of grapeseed oil, makes a sliced duck breast spicy and succulent. Hanger steak is enlivened by a novel blend of puréed Aji Amarillo peppers, fromage blanc, cracker crumbs, and grapeseed oil. Tiger prawns eschew the usual bath of garlic or citrus for a glaze of puréed kumquat and veal stock. A pan-seared chicken breast is enhanced by the sweet-and-sour basting of tamarind and pepper. And the aroma of fragrant ginger and roasted peppers wafting up from a steamed Chilean sea bass tempts you to close your eyes and dream of a Promised Land even more sylvan than East Hampton.
But then you open your eyes and realize this isn’t that place. As I sat one night in Koi’s stunning dark sanctum, with its brawny oranges and browns and its sweeping white lattice canopy that arches clear across the elevated ceiling, I had to fight the urge to will the structure to collapse and wipe out the joint. Because like Geisha, Tao, and 5 Ninth, the owners of Koi appear to be at least as interested in chaos as cuisine. A perpetually prowling bar crowd dominates the room, looming over neighboring tables, blocking servers, and raising the sound levels so high that my companions and I had to bark to converse. The house’s solution? Make the music louder. It’s not easy to eat when your teeth are rattling.
I believe you can host a restaurant, or you can host a club. Pick one. But maybe that’s a generational thing. The majority of Koi’s not that young but determinedly hip patrons don’t seem one bit put off by the bruiser with the clipboard dogging the front door. They giggle as they ask the waiter “What?!” for the fourth time because they can’t hear. A passerby can lean over, point to a diner’s food, and exclaim, “That looks awesome!,” and it doesn’t so much as ruffle the pleasure the man at the table seems to take in his yuzu-lemon tart and coconut rice pudding. Does it matter if tranquillity is achieved if it’s not even wanted?
Still, if you’re like me and you don’t like a doorman guarding the way to your dinner, you’re more likely to enjoy Koi at lunch. The menu is the same. The food is just as good. You can eat in peace. Do you have to be old to enjoy that?
40 W. 40th St. (in the Bryant Park Hotel), nr. Fifth Ave.; 212-921-3330
Hours: Breakfast, 7:30 to 11 A.M. daily. Lunch, Monday to Friday, noon to 2:30 P.M. Dinner, Sunday and Monday, 6 to 10 P.M., Tuesday to Saturday, 5:30 to 11 P.M.
Prices: Appetizers, $4 to $29; entrées, $18 to $30.
Ideal Meal: Hamachi fusion, crispy rice with spicy tuna, roasted duck breast in sriracha dressing, yuzu-lemon tart.
Note: The sushi bar is on its own floor, and you sit with your back to the room. At night, that may be your only hope.