Walking up to the front of the new Koi Hibachi & Kitchen in Toms River, you notice straight away the outside columns wrapped in gold foil. This is a place that’s making a statement right from the start. Over the top? Perhaps. Taken in with the right mindset, though, and it only adds to the anticipation of a memorable dining experience. After all, this is the same group that took an old Denny’s on Brick Boulevard (of all places) and turned into a bright and bustling multi-cuisined Asian restaurant.
Some months back, word started spreading about a new location in Toms River. And not only was the new space going to be a restaurant it was going to include…a cultural center.
A cultural center?
Yes, you heard that right.
I had to drive by to see which part of the Indian Head Plaza (aka the Home Depot plaza on 166 and 571) was going to house all of this. And sure enough, it was a big space all right. My anticipation only grew.
And on Father’s Day I was treated to dinner at the new Koi.
First impressions? Yes – it’s a massive space. What you have at this version of Koi is five things going on at once: a hibachi ‘region’ with fifteen stations, a large regular dining area, a sushi bar, party rooms, and of course the aforementioned cultural center.
While waiting for our order, we had to peruse the cultural center. And it was an interesting collection of period costumes, swords and figurines (which included Pokemon, much to the delight of my daughter). Nice enough to hold your interest for a few minutes, but it makes you wonder if this is a holding space for something down the road.
Back at the table, and the food started to come out. Always start with sushi, and at Koi it’s all about the tricked-out rolls. If I had to make a scale of sushi rolls, on the one end – the very conservative end – would be Sagami in Collingswood. And on the other end would be Koi. I want the wacky, colorful rolls when I’m here. After all, Koi is where the menu is not simply a menu but a colorful, bound hardcover book called “Book of Legend”. Previous versions of these books are on display in the cultural room, by the way.
Now as much as I enjoyed The Dragon Tale roll (yellowfin tuna and lump crab meat covered with with eel), there are two other dishes that I must mention. The salt and pepper whole flounder was such a treat. Having had the salt and pepper shrimp at the other Koi location, I was intrigued by what could be done with a whole fish. The presentation wasn’t what I expected, with the whole fish served in bite-sized morsels on top of the skeletal remains of the fish. But the flavor was exactly what I was hoping for.
The other dish was a simple plate of Chinese broccoli cooked with garlic and piled high. It’s so simple, and yet so joyful. Tender but with a little crunch left, it’s proof that vegetables can be just as much a crowd-pleaser as any funky roll can be.
If you wish, you can order the “traditional” Chinese-American dishes at Koi (my son ordered General Tso’s chicken, and my daughter had chicken and broccoli), but to get the full effect of the “Book of Legend” you should stick with the sushi rolls and the Chinatown items. Even with a cultural room, the best taste of culture usually comes from the the food of the culture.
Koi Hibachi & Kitchen – 1256 Indian Head Road, Toms River. (732) 240-8888 / (732) 240-8889.