A few months ago I wrote about The Peterboro and mentioned the trend of restaurants that fuse some form of Asian food with the small plates, New American approach that’s dominated the Detroit food scene for the last few years. Katoi is a deeper expression of that sentiment.
Katoi, a tiny oasis right across the street from Two James Distillery in Corktown, incorporates all the fun elements of Thai food – such as colour and spice – in an atmosphere that’s still more distinctly Detroit than anything else. The small dining room, which is accompanied by an even smaller bar, is lush with curious decorations and natural light that pours in from skylight windows. The room leads to a large open kitchen where the team cooks for everyone to see.
Those who follow their social media presence will have picked up on their various alien motifs. And no, it’s not just a nod to Winona Ryder and “Stranger Things,” it’s actually their shtick. And through those skylights with limited air conditioning, they playfully suggest that you board the mothership – which powers down on Sundays.
The service and menu is like any other great Detroit restaurant. The servers are relaxed but knowledgeable locals and the menu is mostly meant to be shared, with some larger dishes available as well. As far as restaurants that also have craft cocktails, this place is my favourite. You’ll find the most unusual combinations of Thai teas, fruits, or herbs, with all of your favourite spirits as well as some you’ve never even heard of.
The food is simply fantastic. The menu changes very regularly but here are some items I think exemplify the kinds of things they do.
For the smaller, starter plates, I’ve had the thrice cooked sweet potato, and the striped bass crudo, and loved them. I’ve never had a potato that was boiled, baked, and fried while still retaining so much flavour. The striped bass was simply raw fish fanned out on a plate and dressed in a very spicy coconut milk. The intense spice is perfect for a mild fish like striped bass.
There are three main dishes I’ll talk about: the sticky spare ribs, the braised oxtail, and the Thai chicken sandwich.
The spare ribs are done with fish sauce caramel, watermelon, and long droopy scallions. The dish is a perfect representation of what Katoi does. They take a crispy meat and adorn it with unusual and colourful flavours that make you forget it was deep fried. And, as with all of their dishes, it looks sexy as hell.
The braised oxtail is a heartier dish. It’s a generous portion of oxtail, braised slowly, so much so that the little bones that often characterize it are nonfactors. And they’re served with chickpea dumplings – God bless the chickpea – and loads of fresh cilantro.
The Thai fried chicken sandwich is what it sounds and nothing more. But, something so simple is done so perfectly, and still somehow fits in with everything else on the menu. It’s a chicken sandwich that is so crispy and drowning in scallions. If you’re looking for exotic Thai, this item might not be ideal, but as a late-night option after an all-night Corktown strut, who could resist.
What started as a food truck and local pop-up has finally found a cinder block home in Corktown. More restaurants are coming to the neighbourhood soon, but be sure to board the mothership while there’s still time, they won’t wait for you.