Pictured here: Two Koi's lava roll
Here is the first of seven installments about South Sound maki sushi.
TwoKoi Japanese Restaurant
Where: 1552 Commerce St., Tacoma; 253-274-8999; www.twokoi.com
Hours: Lunch served 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday; Dinner served 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday
Price: $-$$ (Entrees under $30)
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Jackie Young Koh always wanted a fusion restaurant. And now he has that in TwoKoi, where he merges his Japanese and French culinary training with his native Korean palate.
"There were no fusion restaurants here, and I really wanted to try it," said Koh, who previously worked at Tacoma's Fujiya.
Add one more culinary twist to Koh's repertoire: Midwestern.
He went from preparing French cuisine in upscale hotels in Seoul to a Japanese restaurant in Chicago, where he honed his sushi skills for an American palate. Only trouble was that Chicago is a difficult place to get many kinds of fish which is why he created his signature Angus (beef) roll. Beef is a much easier ingredient to source in the heartland.
From Chicago, Koh moved west where fish is cheaper and plentiful and diners more receptive to the artistry of sushi (he also likes the weather here better). After five years at Fujiya he opened TwoKoi with a business partner in 2006.
Koh's menu is full force fusion – diners can find rosemary and lemon-butter sauce right alongside carpaccio and poki. Koh's food is inventive, playful, and broadly appealing to adventurous diners.
His flavor play extends to his maki, too. He pairs the bright flavor of lemon with the fatty sweetness of salmon and the pungent spike of onions. He tops crunchy vegetables rolls with a buttery-rich and sour-sweet raw tuna poki. Texture plays center stage, too, with his rolls. Diners will find interest in signature Koh rolls.
His maki menu offers about 25 rolls, a handful of which are unique to TwoKoi:
Salmon Lover's Roll ($13): Hands down, this was the best maki roll I sampled for this series. Salmon belly and crunchy cucumber are rolled up uramaki (rice on the outside) style and topped with thinly sliced salmon and a lemon-onion sauce that is an intersection of bitter, bright, sour and sweet. The artistry is in the details for Koh – a tiny bit of pith and peel is left on the small bits of thinly-sliced lemons. The pith and peel lend a complex bitterness that contrasts with the sweet undertones from grated onion and salmon belly.
Angus Beef Roll ($15): Koh nods to his Chicago roots with this kitschy Midwestern meat-and-potatoes spin on a maki roll. He sautés Angus beef with soy sauce and sesame oil and combines it with onions, bean sprouts and Japanese noodles before assembling it into a uramaki roll and topping with very thinly sliced beef and crunchy-crispy-fried potato straws. It's a savory, meaty treat – and is a meal in itself. This roll would be a perfect introduction to sushi for the reluctant carnivore in your party.
Lava Roll ($12): Cucumber, pickled radish and yamagobo (pickled burdock root) make for an interesting base. The contrast comes from the crunchy, pickled and bitter vegetables in this uramaki roll and the creamy richness of the poke sauce – chopped tuna mixed with a spicy sweet chile sauce.
Spicy Tuna Roll ($8): Chopped tuna is combined with a spicy sauce that had just the right touch of heat, and the uramaki roll was nicely crunchy with minced green onions, crunchy cucumber and little flavor bursts from tobiko. Again, an example of how well Koh pairs flavor with texture.
Tempura Shrimp Roll ($7): A ubiquitous menu item at most sushi restaurants, but Koh transforms the roll into a perfect trifecta of crispy, crunchy sweet – shrimp rolled up with tobiko roe and crunchy cucumber.
Things to know: A sake list of more than 40 varieties.
The scene: TwoKoi is a sophisticated and warmly decorated upscale Japanese restaurant. Sushi is served on beautiful dishes and careful consideration is paid to presentation. It's the kind of restaurant you can take either a client or a girlfriend to impress.