Review | Koi Kawa

After nearly 20 years in business, Koi Kawa Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar has more than earned its place as a local favorite.

In a time when diners are looking for the hottest new place, it’s a little bit of a throwback that hasn’t changed much over the years. Like the cuisine it serves, Koi Kawa has an understated way about itself that serves the place well.

It’s tucked away next to the Witte Museum and behind the always-busy Tre Trattoria, so sometimes diners can get used to seeing it and take it for granted.

Don’t. Not only is this a very good sushi place; it’s perhaps the best Japanese restaurant in the city, a place that serves many of the classic favorites of that country and does it with a sense of family. No wonder several Japanese families packed the place late on a recent Friday night.

Sure, the sushi is good, with different nigiri (fish on top of vinegared rice with a slight dollop of wasabi between the rice and fish) samples turning out nicely.

During one of our visits, the baby octopus special, was simply exquisite. These tiny, tender and flavorful octopi — poached in water and a little soy sauce — sat on top of a dollop of rice, held in place by a band of seaweed. The briny flavor and mousse-like texture of sea urchin roe or uni, proved another wonderful special sushi item.

A more traditional roll of salmon skin balanced flavors and textures deftly. It’s not an over-the-top type of roll. It’s more for purists.

But this place can put out the over-the-top rolls, too. Each slice of the Heaven and Hell roll — layers of yellow and white tuna, with smelt eggs and a thin slice of jalapeño — certainly gave some heavenly creaminess from the smelt eggs and richness from the tuna, while even a thin slice of the pepper provided the appropriate burn. Although it was a tasty bite — and this comes from somebody who grew up on spicy food — this particular roll was even better without the pepper. Then the flavors of the other ingredients leapt to prominence to capture the attention they deserved. Although the roll was good, perhaps using a judicious sprinkling of very finely diced pepper as an accent instead would have better balanced the heavenly and hellacious. Admittedly, this is a minor point, but small details are what make sushi.

Even though there are no complaints with the sushi, it’s the other dishes that give much more of a sense of Japanese culinary options. Consider the very traditional chawanmushi, a savory steamed custard flavored with dashi. Those of us more familiar with sweet custards may need a few bites to become accustomed to the flavor and texture, but this is a small cup of richness, umami and a little saltiness of the sea.

The dumplings, or gyoza, have a flavor that’s absolutely wonderful, combining the meatiness of the filling with the high note of finely diced scallions. The texture of the bottom that’s briefly pan-fried could be a little more firm, but it’s not a disappointment.

With such a strong level of performance throughout the menu, it was a little surprising to see some sloppy knife work and plain presentation of a sashimi sampler. Instead of the clean and perfectly neat knife cuts in the sushi pieces, some of the raw fish pieces had uneven edges. The normally impeccable presentation instead was the variety of slices set out like a fan on the plate. It didn’t affect the flavor, naturally, and the fish were pristine, but a place like this sets the expectations high.

With only a few exceptions, it achieves them.

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