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Sep 19, 2007 11:17 AM

Cafe Koi = Dead fish

Calgary has seen an incredible boom in great restaurants in the last few years. However, it's always a troubling sign that the bubble is about to burst when seemingly successful restaurants are able to get away serving mediocore fare at relatively high prices.

Cafe Koi has received some excellent praise on Chowhound, mostly for the coffee. I found out that the food is clearly another story. Despite good ambiance, and competent wait staff, I will remember dinner at Koi primarily for the weakness of the food.

First of all, the fact that the kitchen can't time sending out the food does not qualify the restaurant as a "tapas" restaurant. The vast majority of the menu is served in bowls. There were no additional plates on the table which would facilitate tapas style eating. Furthermore, I can't think of a tapas experience I've had where I was actually passing around bowls. Plates, platters and serving bowls with clearly designated serving spoon = tapas. The two dishes we had from the yin and yang / appetizer menu were edamame (unremarkable and expensive) and roasted yams (passable but watery sauce).

As the entrees started to arrive (at various times, tapas style), I could see the visual appeal of the restaurants interior continue with the food - a sort of late 90s Vicious Circle feel with a DJ and a somewhat hipster crowd. However, the taste didn't follow. The first to arrive Chili fire bowl was not hot, and the oyster mushrooms basically non-existent. Although, and perhaps a quality of the hoisin sauce, the noodles were the only appropriately seasoned element of the entire evening. My shinobi salmon bowl followed - a warm, watery bath of coconut milk, flavourless with undercooked and unsalted vegetables swimming around. The salmon portion size was fine, but possibly because of the size, it was totally overcooked. Rice showed up at some point (tapas style, don't forget, as the staff will remind you continually), but why it came after the first bowls arrived, I don't know. Again, no serving spoon, so I just have to hope no one at the table had a cold.

There are things to like about Koi - the small scale, unpretentious interior, inferred organic and slowfood politics; All that love they talk about on the menu appeals to my inner child. However, the salmon is farmed (at least, they seem like they would brag about it if it was wild) and tiger prawns are slowly destroying the rice paddies of southeast asia. Furthermore tapas style service requires tableside plates, serving cutlery and non-bowl presentation. The repetition of coconut and maple shows a lack of creativity - and neither flavour is played with to any depth. The food was overcooked, undercooked and unseasoned, despite the fact that the kitchen can send out dishes whenever they feel like it. Finally, Thai-Sai-On is just down the street and has been doing it with coconut milk, prawns and chilis for years - and they do it right.

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  1. Mike, the coffee at Koi is worse now for the fact that their barista, Josh, left for Montreal last April, with his wife. They were killed in a car wreck en route in Ontario. I don't mention this as a rejoinder to your review, I just wanted to mention it and haven't figured out the right place to do it. I am disappointed not to see a memoriam or something on their website but perhaps I missed it.

    But thanks for the review. I've been curious about Koi's reliance on "maple syrup" all over the place as well.

    1. So glad to see a gobstopper review, truly, have been on the lookout for them for ages. I completely concur, cafe koi was a total disappointment food-wise, and the service was abominable. I am a totally low-maintenance customer, but it was ridiculous. When I asked if the salmon was wild, the guy informed me that if it were, I would be paying an arm and a leg, and anyway, the fish was fed organically... probably. Never mind that I am happy to pay for wild salmon, his response was idiotic. And yes, like G said, the dish was bland to dishwater proportions.

      1 Reply
      1. re: alex8alot

        Thanks very much for the responses. John - I'm sorry to hear about Josh and his wife - and I agree that it's difficult but important to remember that so much of what makes food great really comes back to the abilities and dedication of individuals. alex8alot - glad someone agrees - I've felt outnumbered in my assessment of koi in the past.

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