Even descending the stairs from the expansive view at Koi’s third-story, downtown Santa Fe perch to find that one’s bicycle has been stolen cannot ruin the sly exuberance one feels after a meal at Joel Coleman’s new eatery.
Addicts of Coleman’s cooking have been jonesing since last year’s demise of Mauka, and the first tug off the menu at Koi is a righteous and prolonged high magnified by painful drought. But if Mauka was deserving of its many accolades, Koi has only elevated to new heights Coleman’s masticatory mash-up of Euro-Asian flavors and local meats and produce.
The tapas-sized portions at Koi make it possible to indulge in three or four dishes for a reasonable price (plates range from $6 to $17; the higher-priced items have larger portions or special ingredients). The skill in the kitchen and the clear deference to the quality of the food means flavors reign over bulk, acid trumps fat and plates may be ordered in a state of feral glee without pausing to unbutton one’s pants.
The local vegetable tempura ($8)—eggplant, oyster mushrooms and beans on my last visit—for example, belies its deep-fried nature with a wispy tenderness and a piquant trace of lemon that makes one want to storm the kitchen and demand access to the magical frying oil and the secret spice wand.
A daily sashimi special melts like a pad of butter on the tongue and tussles with a vanilla gelée like young lovers on a rainy afternoon, rolling in the grass near an empty sake bottle.
Kimchi pancakes ($11), as at Mauka, are served with a farm-fresh egg on top, a delirious and finely balanced maple cr%uFFFDme fraiche, and a spiced, house-made pork-foie sausage. You’ll finish the plate so quickly and so thoroughly that onlookers will have to describe it as a killing spree.
The Vietnamese cold salad ($12) uses fresh, crunchy noodles to cradle supple strands of New Mexico’s River Canyon Ranch beef inside a medley of fresh herb garnishes. The outdoor dining area is ringed with herbs that are put to good use.
When I ordered a gin mojito while waiting for my table, the bartender cheerily wandered outside to collect mint and basil. We’re lucky that so many chefs are cooking with fresh, local herbs and ingredients in Santa Fe these days, but Coleman and his capable sous chef Robert Starr manage to make it matter in terms of pure flavor. Not every kitchen can deliver the extra potency of fresh ingredients all the way to the table but, at Koi, nearly every dish brims with a kind of sublime vigor. It’s as though the food were actually excited about being consumed.
The cocktail and dessert menus both feel nascent but compelling—full of good ideas that will no doubt benefit from further exploration.
An overtly design-y interior and several funny-shaped bowls and plates leave me personally cold, but then I won’t be returning to Koi for the plates or the chairs—I’ll keep going because Coleman isn’t just a big chef in a small kitchen: He’s as talented as they come.
But next time I’ll go with a stronger bike lock.
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