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Joining the Sushi Scene

Another Chic Outlet Caters to L.A.'s Love for Seafood

September 29, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Koi Restaurant

730 N. La Cienega Blvd.

Los Angeles

(310) 659-9449

Cuisine: Japanese

Rating: one star


John Rivera Sedlar outraged the public when he respectfully served tamales on plates emblazoned with the image of the Our Lady of Guadalupe at his defunct restaurant Abiquiu in Santa Monica. Yet Buddha has become a popular restaurant decorating theme without evoking protests. A golden Buddha has gazed on the bar at Chinois for almost 20 years. Buddha Bar in Paris is built around a two-story gold image that looms over the dining room. The luxe Ona Spa on Beverly Boulevard includes a meditative Buddha Garden Cafe.

Now Koi, a new restaurant on the border of West Hollywood, features a Buddha fountain in one dining room and an antiqued stone Buddha head mounted over the fireplace in the outdoor patio. Votive candles flicker from stone shelves bolted to the wall of the bar. Designed by Thomas Schoos, the interior is Zenned-out industrial loft accented with staves of bamboo and stone fossils.

L.A.'s appetite for sushi seems to never flag. Served in a chic, happening setting, it always brings the crowds, at least for a while. Out front valets sprint down the sidewalk, pedestrians be damned, to wherever they stash the cars. If you feel like dropping in on a Saturday night, don't. Koi is so popular, you won't get past the door without a reservation.

It's a stage set for a trendy sushi bar, one that could exist only in Los Angeles. The place is so large, it seats 220. The space, which once housed L'Ermitage, then Drai's and Cienega, has never looked better. Remember the dreadful astroturf "patio"? It's now lined with booths and features two ponds with the requisite Buddhas. The spacious lounge has been redone in soothing, sober tones and features age-crusted stone fossils set on the mantelpiece. In the foyer, men in tight-fitting T-shirts greet each other with awkward hugs. Eyes swivel toward each newcomer as L.A.'s fashion followers in belly-baring outfits totter on their Jimmy Choos past the long, five-chef sushi bar.

Koi is so Zenned out sushi chefs don't even shout out a greeting to newcomers. Oddly, the sushi counter here is not the most coveted place to sit, maybe because people tend to come here with more than one friend. On the other hand, if you're just a party of two, it may be the quietest place to eat. The high-pitched laughs of groups of ladies bounce off the walls. The noise level is as effective as a rude maitre d' hurrying you through your meal. My guests can't wait to get somewhere quieter to talk.

For a hot spot, Koi has unusually attentive service, from servers who take earning a good tip seriously. But sometimes even their best efforts can't make up for the ordinary food, or the kitchen's slowness. My first lunch, soon after Koi opened in May, was so mediocre I waited a couple of months before going back a few more times, to mixed results. As the restaurant caught on, the food did get better.

While I wouldn't consider Koi one of the more serious sushi restaurants in town, the sushi, at least on my last visit, is respectable. Hamachi, toro, uni, salmon are all sparkling fresh. Sunomono, or cucumber salad, is piled high in handsome square porcelain dishes. Sushi rolls are neat packets of rice and fish. Two pieces of toro sushi can set you back $18. On previous visits, though, much of the fish had a dull cast, and didn't seem as fresh or as flavorful as it should be. I think they were hoping most people wouldn't notice if the seafood was doctored with enough chile and wasabi.

Nobu Matsuhisa, chef/owner of Matsuhisa, Nobu, Malibu and Nobu in Manhattan, has had enormous influence on Japanese restaurants here, especially those favored by a non-Japanese clientele. His cheeky introductions of jalapeno, garlic, sweet Maui onion, osetra caviar, even butter and mayonnaise to the austere Japanese palette of flavors, has caught on big-time. Every trendy sushi restaurant is attempting to emulate his success.

The signature dishes of Koi's chef, Hawaiian-raised Rodelio Aglibot, include halibut carpaccio with basil ponzu and crunchy little cakes of seared sushi rice topped with spicy tuna tartare and a slice of jalapeno. The tuna has either been pounded or whizzed in the food processor until it's almost a paste and is so spicy that it's impossible to appreciate the quality of the fish. Hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi is fine, but it's hard to fathom the impulse to cover spicy, marinated albacore sashimi in fried, almost burnt, onions, then douse the plate with ponzu. The onions lose their crispiness and all you taste is onion and oil.

Equally puzzling is the idea behind the Koi Crunch Roll, spicy tuna wrapped around gooey cream cheese, the whole rolled up in nori and then fried like tempura. This is one of the strangest dishes I've ever tasted. Smoked salmon and cream cheese may be an idea made in heaven, but combining raw tuna and cheese doesn't translate.

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