leave your inhibitions at the door
It’s always floored me how terrible the Thai restaurants are here in Ann Arbor. Either they lack any kind of spice at all or whatever flavors they have are all muddled in an unintelligible mess on the plate. Even the formula of finding the biggest hole-in-the-wall fails miserably – all you get is a Thai-ish meal at a place with questionable hygiene. Adding insult to tastebud injury, prices are considerably more than what you can find in Chicago, a major city where cost of living is higher than this small college town.
A few months ago, I wrote a series of columns about another lament about the Ann Arbor food scene – its decline into boring, substandard, overpriced food. Ricewood and Ginger Deli are excellent exceptions, but those aren’t exactly fine dining or date-worthy options.
But now we have a restaurant that has solved both problems.
Katoi is a chef-driven, Thai-inspired restaurant that opened up this summer here in the former Jerusalem Garden space when that restaurant moved to their new location. The chef doing the driving is Brad Greenhill, who’s kicked around different restaurants in Michigan and Boston. The dishes are mostly Thai, but other southeast Asian cuisines have been known to appear.
It started off as a food truck in downtown Detroit that got incredibly popular, incredibly quickly. They decided to shut down the food truck to open a brick and mortar restaurant in Detroit, set for Fall 2015. Meanwhile, the opportunity arose to run “Katoi in Exile” in the J-Garden spot as a pop-up this summer and that, too, became wildly popular. So they decided to keep the Ann Arbor location open as a permanent restaurant in addition to the Detroit one.
I’ve been to Katoi five times in the past month. I n that time, I’ve seen them add to their business hours, add table service, and add actual plates and silverware. Even with ramping up staff and opening two restaurants concurrently, I’ve seen the quality of food getting better and better. And every time I leave, I find myself saying that this is not only the best Thai food in Ann Arbor, it’s the best food. Period. Any cuisine, any price range.
The menu changes often, but there are a couple mainstays. There are usually 9-10 items, in portions that are meant to share. On two occasions – with my family and with Mr and Mrs Winegetter – we ordered one of everything on the menu and were sufficiently stuffed. The best part – even with that level of gluttony, the overall bill was in the neighborhood of $100. THAT’S value.
There’s only two drawbacks that are holding it back from being considered fine dining. First, they don’t have a liquor license yet. In Michigan, it takes an act of God and several suitcases of cash to get one. Obviously, more of the latter than the former. Unfortunately, it’s not quite legal to BYOB here, either.
The other drawback is the space itself. There’s a nice outdoor area with several tables and a smaller section inside. The problem is that the former J-Garden was a dump. They’ve cleaned up Katoi quite a bit, but it’s still not white table cloth-ready. But at least the staff are all energetic, knowledgeable, and deeply passionate about their product.
When we went with the kids, we took up all five seats at the bar.
I definitely recommend that as we got to see the chef in action and he was a blast to interact with.
What We Ate
These pictures were taken over the course of our visits. You can see the progression from pop-up restaurant with disposable bowls and plasticware to real dishes.
Everything was excellent, but the stars are the blistered corn, som tam Thai, grilled hen, carrots, and the fried chicken sandwich. Since the menu changes often, some of these items may not be there. So the best bet is to keep going back.
Part of me doesn’t want them to get a full liquor license. There’s no space for a bar there and I’d hate to wait around for a table because a bunch of hipsters want to have a craft cocktail. I think there’s a lower level license for just beer and wine. I think that’d be perfect as the goal should be to complement the food and both fit that bill.
Wait, you’re still here? Why haven’t you gone yet?