Koi Sushi

The Golden Dragon roll at Koi Sushi is not to be missed.

American Apparel sold nothing I wanted to wear. Koi Sushi serves lots of things I like to eat. Change is good.

After the Los Angeles-based clothing chain declared bankruptcy last year and the local store left State Street, a new Japanese and Chinese restaurant moved into the prime, expansive location and is proving to be a much better use of the space.

Xi Wang opened Koi Sushi on March 4. She said she invested $300,000 into the space on the corner of State and Gilman streets. The room is notably spare — plain white walls, with four giant TVs serving as the only decor. The bar was not in use because the restaurant has not yet been granted a liquor license. A sushi bar in front of the kitchen sat empty, too.

Outside, the American Apparel awnings are still up, but Koi Sushi “grand opening” banners have been placed over two of them. The Wednesday night I was in, the restaurant was doing a strong business, crowded with lots of Asian students.

The menu is huge, its Chinese section identical to Chili King, the Park Street restaurant owned by Wang’s cousin Jiang Jing Xun, who owns many local Chinese and Japanese restaurants.

Koi’s menu includes one of my favorite dishes, Chili King’s string beans sautéed with eggplant. But I skipped it, focusing mainly on sushi rolls and sashimi.

Koi Sushi exterior

Koi Sushi on State Street is in the old American Apparel location at the corner of Gilman Street.

Two previous sushi restaurants I’ve visited, RED Dine Lounge and the new Muramoto Downtown, were disappointing when it came to specialty rolls, and have made me leery of paying $16 for a fancy roll again. But I rolled the dice at Koi by ordering the Golden Dragon ($15.95) and was glad I did.

There was nothing aesthetically pleasing about the bright orange roll, and it wasn’t super elaborate. Still, the eight-piece roll was tender and delicious, filled with spicy salmon and avocado, and topped with baked white tuna and “14 karat gold” tobiko (fish roe). It was topped with “chef’s special sauce,” which was slightly sweet. There might have been a bit of wasabi hiding in the top of the roll, because each slice had a surprise little burst of heat.

In talking to Wang, the language barrier made it impossible to find out out if there was hidden wasabi, or what was up with the “14 karat gold” tobiko. I’m guessing it was just a silly reference to the color.

The raw white tuna was hidden beneath the roll’s sauce, and it was also unidentifiable laid bare in the sashimi appetizer ($11.95). The types of fish in the sashimi plate were just listed on the menu as “chef’s choice.” When we asked our waitress what it was, she didn’t know, but went to look into it. She came back to tell us it was white tuna.

The plate also held raw tuna and raw salmon, three slices of each. It wasn’t cut or laid out real attractively, but it all tasted fresh, and I warmed to the firmer-textured white tuna, which didn’t have much curb appeal — especially when I didn’t know what it was.

“White tuna” is usually albacore or escolar, and gets a bad rap because those are relatively cheap bottom-feeding fish. Escolar is also known to cause digestive problems.

Best not to dwell on that. The only real misfire was the regular roll I ordered, the spicy tuna roll. It’s a favorite of mine and how I judge any new sushi restaurant. Koi’s, I discovered, was pretty weak. The tuna mixture was dull and hardly tasted spicy. I can’t remember the last time I had to enhance a spicy tuna roll with wasabi, but I did here. Plus, at $7.95 for six pieces, it seemed overpriced. At least the Golden Dragon roll had eight pieces.

Koi Sushi

Koi Sushi on State Street has a minimalist atmosphere with nothing but TVs on its walls.

My companion, who doesn’t eat seafood, raw or cooked, ordered the beef with snow peas ($13.45) from the American-style Chinese menu. He’s a big red-meat eater and I steered him to the American section because of a tricky experience I had at Chili King, when I ordered too authentically.

The plate held a huge amount of meat, all tender, except for one giant piece of fat and gristle. But that was the exception, and we enjoyed not just the beef, but the peapods, and the unexpected zucchini, carrots and mushrooms. An easygoing brown sauce covered the meat and veggies.

Appetizers did the trick without wowing us. When I asked Wang, who helped wait on us, if the gyoza ($6.95), or pot stickers, were made in-house, she didn’t seem too sure. But when the pan-fried dumplings showed up they did seem homemade, and they came on a lovely serving tray that had a built-in area for the dipping sauce.

The yakitori ($7.25), or grilled chicken skewers, also from the Japanese menu, distinguished themselves with green peppers and green onion between the pieces of meat. The skewers were covered in a brown sauce which was slightly thicker than the sauce on the meat dish.

Koi Sushi’s liquor license application was turned down by the Madison’s Alcohol License Review Committee, but Wang is going back in front of the committee in late June and is confident she’ll be able to at least serve beer, wine and sake.

Wang told me that besides the money she invested to open the restaurant, she also pays her cousin $10,800 a month to lease the space. I’m hoping she can start to use the bar that’s sitting conspicuously empty. It’s going to be difficult to make those rent payments on sushi and gyoza alone.

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Wisconsin State Journal food writer Samara Kalk Derby brings you the latest news on the Madison area's eclectic restaurant scene.