By 10:00 PM, my hastily scribbled notes were written on back-to-back pages of their printed dinner menus. They were soiled from a combination of curried hot pot juices, coconut milk, sweet chili garlic sauce, cilantro sprigs and Thai basil—and they were just beginning to dry out from the cocktail I’d spilled on them an hour earlier.
My iPhone had already drained its charge earlier in the evening, overworked by the dozens of photos and notes I had taken with it.
At 10:30 PM, these damp, food-stained menu sheets were carefully folded and slipped into my pocket, awaiting a home restoration. I said my goodbyes and walked out into a cold drizzle on a dark, windy night in the D.
I had just dined…
Katoi resides in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit—what could arguably be called the incubator of many of Detroit’s recent restaurant hatchings.
From the outside, Katoi’s white, painted-cinderblock exterior with one simple sign is underwhelming, to say the least.
What’s inside is the exact opposite.
If you crack open this restaurant’s simple, white cinderblock, “square egg” exterior, what you’ll find inside is a delicious surprise for ALL of your senses. What was once a run-down place where you might have gone to change your oil is now a hip, avant-garde restaurant, a place to go to change your mind about contemporary food and dining.
As Katoi’s owner Philip Kafta explained it, “We wanted the Katoi experience and theme to be accepting for what’s different.” Kafta, along with fellow owner Courtney Henriette, Chef Brad Greenhill, and their talented staff certainly have left no doubt that Katoi is indeed different—even before you hoist a glass or lift a fork.
Entering Katoi through its front locker door, you arrive in the first of 3 spaces, each separated by colorfully illuminated polycarbonate ribbed windows framed in black steel flanked by cinderblock walls, which have been artfully blistered from decades of former wear. It’s the kind of natural “patina” an artist would charge a fortune to duplicate, yet there it is—a juxtaposition of decay and neglect set against its exact opposite in the form of über-hip décor and even more amazing Thai-influenced cuisine.
The bar/lounge is tight, yet roomy enough for 20 or more (on stools or standing on busy nights). It’s well stocked with premium liquors as well as a chemistry lab of infusions, extracts and garnishments from which an assortment of craft cocktails are invented. As Katoi doesn’t take reservations, the bar is also a landing for the in-and-outers, one-and-done grazers, cocktail movers and shakers, and all those who still have enough charge on their phones to entertain themselves while they wait for one of the dining room’s 50 or so seats.
Speaking of seats, the dining room’s black lacquered table settings and its “bento box” booths with colorful fabric upholstery are low slung, which, given the high vaulted ceiling, makes the room (the second of 3 spaces) seem almost cube-like in proportion.
As the evening approached and the outside light coming in from its skylight diminished, the room’s glow of colorful recessed lighting washed against its cinderblock walls, silhouetting the diners and the fast-paced service staff bringing multiple courses of dishes to each table.
Finally, Katoi’s third (and if you’re a foodie, its grandest) space is the small-but-efficient open kitchen, whose view in from the dining room is framed on all sides by the restaurant’s signature ribbed panels on the northern wall.
It almost seems as if you’re watching a live Food Network TV show on a massive living room TV set. And it’s quite a show indeed.
Even before I was seated with my friends, I found myself scribbling notes on not one but two of their simple printed evening menus as the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and random observations poured into my head. Here’s a sample:
Regarding the restaurant as a whole:
If this place were any more, it would be less.
Let down your guard and enjoy. This is one BIG party; you just don’t know everyone…yet.
One of my party commented…”This place reminds me of a Tarantino film.”
Regarding the dining room:
Katoi is right sized for Detroit. This is Detroit…right?
Sign language would be a huge asset here on a date.
If you’re a party of four or more, bring a change of clothes; it can get messy. If you take their suggestion to order lots of items and share (which I think you should), expect to drip, tip and drop parts of any dish at any time. If it gets out of hand, and that second change of clothes isn’t enough, well…they’ll just hose you down.
First date nighters, this may be the place of your dreams cuz you’ll practically be on each other’s laps trying to communicate over the din of hip techno music, lively conversation and friends that will want to join you…
Regarding the food:
The wonderful smells coming from the kitchen are unmistakably Thai. Freshly steamed rice, coconut milk, curry, ginger, garlic, cilantro, sweet herbs… it’s all good.
It’s food meant for sharing…get over it.
OMG, I actually think they might have got this nailed right out of the box!
Katoi’s menu is broken into 5 sections, and I sampled items in each.
PHAK+LARB+YUM+TUM (vegetables + spicy salads)
Thrice Cooked Sweet Potatoes (The charred disks of tender sweet potato were like candy!)
Wok Charred Brassicas (Like a long broccoli spear—loved the sesame.)
Chickpea Tofu (The sweet chili garlic sauce went exceptionally well with this.)
Smoked Carrots (The coconut yogurt and honey melded with the basil/mint-like perilla into a wonderful broth.)
KUAYTIAW+KAENG (noodles + curries)
Khao Soi Gai (The curried noodles were tender and went so well with the chicken.)
KHONG PROT (meat + fish / pleasing things)
Thai Fried Chicken (Super crunchy, and both the sweet garlic chili sauce and coconut ranch dressing were fabulous with it.)
Tom Kha Hot Pot (Head on prawns with galangal (a Thai-style ginger) in a coconut kafir lime broth—a soup/stew-like experience.)
Crispy Spare Ribs (A MUST order on this menu—the cold slaw of apples & Thai basil & scallion is almost Mojito-ish.)
Crying Tiger Smoked Brisket (Another favorite dish here—tender, thin slices with a Thai dipping sauce called jaew which is very tasty!)
Sticky Rice (This comes in a small wicker basket, which, once opened, reveals small bags of steamed rice you can open as desired to enjoy with your chosen dishes.)
KHONG WAAN (sweets)
Coconut Milk Ice Cream (The peanuts and mango sauce were welcome additions.)
Additional Text Roti Bread (Kind of a cross between a soft/thin pita and a crepe. The sweetened, condensed milk and sea salt made an unusual-but-tasty, meal-ending treat that everyone enjoyed.)
As for the rest, here’s my box score. *(5 being highest/best where numbers are listed)
Menu Intimidation Factor MIF4.0:
Okay, for starters, I don’t speak or read Thai, and it’s likely you don’t either, which is why everything (except for the menu category titles) is in English. Yeah, they throw in some ingredient descriptors, which even I’m not that familiar with. But hey, nothing’s gonna kill ya…people have been eating this stuff for centuries.
They’ve got more dedicated bicycle parking spaces out front than car parking spaces if that’s any indication of their dress code. Helmets are optional dining attire, but a reflective vest may be a clever way for your friends to find you when the bar gets REALLY crowded. In a word…it’s casual hip (okay, that’s two words but you get the idea…)
The Crowd 3.5:
It seems to be a rather young, adventuristic crowd filled with an equal mix of urban professionals, foodies, local Thai food lovers, and no doubt, a number of Ann Arbor Katoi groupies who dearly miss their A2 Katoi experiences and came to cheer on their beloved Thai Guys…
The good news is….they don’t need a lot of parking. The bad news is…they don’t have much parking. Actually, it’s not that bad, especially if you arrive before 6 PM. After that, depending on how far you care to walk, it would be at best, a block. They have a small lot in front of the building, a small street aside it and street parking on Michigan Avenue, on both sides.
Bang for the Buck 5:
Very reasonable bar and menu pricing encourages you to dive right in and explore without worrying about the bottom line. The atmosphere is free.
Food Stuff 4.5:
Katoi’s food is meant to be shared, so it’s portioned that way and is very easy to enjoy many different dishes and explore your Thai curiosities. Even better, more than a dozen menu items are, or can be made, vegetarian. They have all the protein groups covered too, from chicken, duck, pork, beef and seafood. There’s a lot to choose from.
Energy, Vibe, & the Cool-Wow Factor 5:
I’ve never given a 5 for this category but here you are. This place works well on so many levels. The interior design is simple and hip, the food is wonderful, and the music and enthusiastic crowd drives the party along.
Location: 2520 Michigan Ave., Detroit, MI 48126
Reservations: Nope…Honestly though, it’s next to impossible for small restaurants to honor reservations. These seats need to be filled open to close to make this all work. On the positive side, the list of craft cocktails is fab.
Hours: Dinner Only Mon-Wed 5 PM to 12 AM, Thurs – Sat 5 PM – 2 AM. Closed Sunday.
They accept all the usual plastic cards and are wheelchair accessible right off the parking lot. Of course, children are, I’m sure, welcome. However, the menu is not exactly suited to most children’s tastes, and the music may not be conducive to a family meal setting. Just sayin…