The Food and Wine Hedonist

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Ann Arbor Eats: Katoi

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 outside

 

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.

katoi bar 2

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.

katoi khao soi

Khao soi – curried noodles, coconut milk, drumstick, mustard greens

Blistered corn with avocado sauce and fresh basil

Blistered corn with avocado sauce and fresh basil

Som Tam Thai – spicy green papaya salad. YES!!! It was actually spicy

Som Tam Thai – spicy green papaya salad. YES!!! It was actually spicy

Banh mi - not quite as good as Ginger's, but not bad at all

Banh mi – not quite as good as Ginger’s, but not bad at all

Vegan Coconut ice cream

Vegan Coconut ice cream

Grilled hen with sweet chili sauce

Grilled hen with sweet chili sauce

Chickpea tofu – a lot like polenta

Chickpea tofu – a lot like polenta

Charred carrots with coconut yogurt

Charred carrots with coconut yogurt

Fried chicken sandwich

Fried chicken sandwich

Roasted cauliflower and broccoli

Roasted cauliflower and broccoli

Thai fried chicken

Thai fried chicken

Grilled mushrooms with cilantro

Grilled mushrooms with cilantro

 

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?

 

 

 

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About thefoodandwinehedonist

I don't know everything about the world of food and wine, but I'm not going to let a small detail like that stop me from blogging about it.

14 comments on “Ann Arbor Eats: Katoi

  1. thewineraconteur
    September 9, 2015

    John, you make it sound great, even if they don’t have a license. I don’t normally do Pacific Rim restaurants, but I will try on your says so, and I am sure that it will make my Bride extremely happy.

  2. elizabeth
    September 9, 2015

    Is BYOB not legal in MI? If that’s the case, freaking liquor laws, man. They make NO SENSE to me. In PA (and especially in Philly) many, many places are BYOB because actually buying wine is ridic expensive for restaurants.

    Anyway, as I was reading this I got excited for the proprietors–it seems like they keep evolving in a good way and hopefully they can get to a place where they can get a beer/wine license, because it seems like it would be ideal to linger over these dishes with a nice beer or glass of wine in hand.

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      September 10, 2015

      When I first heard they were opening two at a time, I thought they were insane. But they’re doing it incrementally here so it’s a controlled growth – impressive. Definitely think that beer and wine is the way to go, simply for the pairings.

      BYOB is not legal here. I think some places will look the other way, but most will not. Great wine blogger (and friend) The Drunken Cyclist lives in Philly and has written a lot about wine in PA. I guess their state liquor board buys in bulk and stores/restaurants have to get it from them. So the selection is very limited anywhere you go.

  3. Josh Woodward
    September 9, 2015

    That blistered corn is stupidly good.

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      September 10, 2015

      Yeah, didn’t mention it here but after that first time we would order 2 so we wouldn’t fight over it

  4. Bakers and Best
    September 11, 2015

    My wife and I have been there three times this summer. Several years ago she spent a few months living in Thailand and it is the only Thai place that has remotely passed muster since she got back. I didn’t realize they were setting up shop in Ann Arbor for good, glad to hear it!

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      September 11, 2015

      Yeah, we have a dozen or so Thai places but none are remotely good. Thx for stopping by!

  5. Anonymous
    September 30, 2015

    As the owner of Jerusalem Garden, I find it extremely offensive and rude to call my former house a dump. If it wasn’t for my extreme generosity in allowing Katio to set up shop for nothing in my place, you would have nothing to write about. You sir are obnoxious.

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      October 1, 2015

      Sorry that I offended, perhaps dump was a little harsh. It was most certainly clean, but was a little run-down and in need of some refreshing. I say this as I’ve had the pleasure of eating there many, many times. There was a mismatch (then and with Katoi now) between the high quality of food and the ambiance of the surroundings. The new space is gorgeous and is fitting for the restaurant.

    • Max D.
      October 9, 2015

      You should read what he wrote about Puerto Rican food. . . (but in defense of the FWH, Puerto Rican food can be very obnoxious).

  6. Max D.
    October 9, 2015

    I’m going there today.

  7. Rachel
    October 16, 2015

    They actually aren’t staying permanently, they are leaving in November, which makes me extremely sad.

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This entry was posted on September 9, 2015 by in Ann Arbor, Dining and tagged , , , , , , .
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