Takoi, nee Katoi

 

“And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say yourself, “My God! What have I done?”

“Same as it ever was.” “Same as it ever was.”

With apologies to Brian Eno, David Byrne, and the rest of the Talking Heads, they never went away.

That’s the message Courtney Henriette wants everyone to hear.

Yes, the restaurant burned.

Yes, they had to close it up for months.

But that time wasn’t wasted.

The ownership team of Courtney, chef Brad Greenhill, and Philip Kafka went back to the beginning.  Back to life as a pop-up.

After the February 17th fire, they established a residency at Frame, in Hazel Park.  The did a number of pop-ups at Mabel Gray, Grey Ghost, and other locations.

And they kept the team together.  About 75% of the previous staff is here.  Many were kept on payroll during the hiatus.

Now, they’re back in the old location, but is it the same as it ever was?

It might even be better.

What’s changed?

Maybe everything.

The decor is different, courtesy of architect Ishtiaq Rafiuddin.  There is a new wing, housed in a shipping container.  

There’s a new patio, surrounded by a fence.

The restaurant interior has been freshened, new booths installed, lighting reworked.

The bar seems largely unchanged, a Blade Runner speakeasy, but now with a serving window to the patio.  

 

The cinder block walls remain, as does the sense of place.  It’s still weird, Detroit.  You’re at Takoi.

The menu has changed.  While still on a single page, the headings have changed, as have most of the dishes.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of trying many of these new tastes.

I started with a new dish, the Melon Salad.  As background, my late mother and I clashed over melon.  She loved all kinds; I thought anything other than watermelon was a waste.  Mom would have loved this salad.  The melon in question is honeydew and cantaloupe, shaved thin, tossed with cherry tomato halves, dressed with Thai basil, lime leaf, and ginger, atop a cashew crema.  It presents beautifully, as you can see.  How good is it?  I wanted to lick the bowl–the sweet of the melon is enhanced with the brightness of the basil and lime leaf, and the cashew crema adds a welcome richness.  This is a must-have dish, and a great start to a meal

The Fried Cauliflower is also a new dish, one a bit on the sweeter side.  Flavored with tamarind, curry powder, and palm sugar, the dish also gets a kick from the pickled chile and fresh cilantro garnish.  I enjoyed this vegan dish (the menu is very vegan- and vegetarian-friendly).  There’s a pleasant crunch to the florets, the hit of sweetness, and the acidic finish from the chile and cilantro.

 

Charred Broccoli is Takoi’s take on the ubiquitous vegetable.  Broccoli ships well, is available year-round, and is a healthy thing to eat.  What’s not to love?  Well, the taste for one.  There’s a reason most Americans associate broccoli with crudite platters and Ranch dip.  Takoi’s version might change this, convincing even little diners to eat their vegetables.  Grill-charred broccoli is dressed with curry rice crispies, atop more of the cashew crema, garnished with scallion shavings.  It’s a simple dish that simply works.

Grilled Corn was my final vegetable. Chef Brad introduces elote, Mexican street corn, to its Asian cousin.  The result is a charred half cob of corn, slathered with a bit of crema (coconut milk base?), garnished with cilantro, lime juice, and toasted coconut.  It’s a quintessential Thai flavor feast:  layers of sweet, acidic, and citrus.  It’s also messy, like all corn on the cob.  Live a little – eat with your hands.  Mess up your face.  If that bothers your date, they’re not the one for you anyways.  Who wants to hang out with somebody who’s that uptight?

 

After paying full homage to the veggies, we moved on to the proteins.  Chef Brad’s Fried Chicken is very crispy, perfectly moist, and a generous portion.  It’s served with what the menu describes as a southern Thai curry, and roti bread.  Honestly, I was a bit taken aback by this dish.  The curry took me to India, with a taste similar to a traditional Indian massaman.  I wasn’t expecting the sweetness found here, expecting more heat and spicy flavor, the Thai version of Nashville hot chicken, perhaps.

Full disclosure – I was wrong.

I researched this dish, and found that many of the southern provinces of Thailand are populated by descendants of immigrants from India.  Thus, the curries and roti of southern Thailand closely resemble the naan and massaman of India.  The dish is in fact a southern Thai curry, with traditional accompaniments.  And I learned something, which is always a pleasure.  In a world where learning is traditionally divided into “visual” or “verbal” learners, who wouldn’t rather absorb their lessons by “taste”?

I think that’s a school we can all get out of bed for!

The final dish was the Crispy Spare Ribs.  Somehow, I had missed this dish in its Katoi incarnation.  I will not miss it again.

Let’s start with what it isn’t.  Banish all thoughts of barbecued spare ribs from your mind.  These have nothing in common with those.

This dish is four meaty ribs, under a pile of peaches, pickled nectarines, and lime juice, glazed with a magic sauce made from fairy dust and unicorn horn shavings.  The menu describes it as a fish sauce caramel, so we should probably go with that.  But it’s magic.  It’s sweet, funky, and crispy.  

Disciplined eaters can enjoy the interplay of the fruits and the sauced ribs with alternating bites.  But they would be wrong, and you should not date them again..   The correct way to eat these ribs is with your hands, like this, making this exact face:

My meals were accompanied by Cha Yen, the brightly-colored Thai ice tea.  It’s a spiced black tea, with sweetened condensed milk, and a color similar to carrot juice.  It’s a bit sweet, creamy, and very refreshing.  I have tried Thai ice tea in other restaurants, only to be overwhelmed by the coconut milk to tea ratio (hint, there should be more “tea” in tea).  Takoi’s version is perfect.  I can taste it now.

However, what really sets Takoi apart is its service.  The team service, where every server passing the table DID something for that table (delivered a dish, took an empty away, filled a glass, asked if drink refills were needed, etc.), was exhibited on every visit.  It is clearly a part of the restaurant’s DNA, a survivor from earlier incarnations.  It’s a rarity in metro Detroit, let alone Corktown.  It is difficult to teach, onerous to manage, and impossible to fake.

Which leads us back to our original question:  Same as it ever was?

While everything has changed, the people have not.  They’re young, enthusiastic, beautiful, and having fun.  They actually seem to be ENJOYING their time at work, and with each other.  How can that be?

One of my friends taught me that you can taste the love in food.  Grandma’s cornbread tastes best, because she put the love in it.  No one else’s will ever taste that good.  And while you might not know the Takoi team, you don’t have to be around them very long to feel the love.

And you can taste it, too.

Takoi is located at 2520 Michigan Avenue in Detroit.  It is open Mon – Wed 5 p.m. till midnight, and Thur – Sat 5 p.m. till 2 a.m.  Reservations are recommended.  Call the restaurant, at 313.855.2864, or you can book a tasting at tocktix.com.

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