There is no better way to address the perfection that is Takoi, in Detroit’s Corktown area, than by parodying a famous piece of writing: “I saw the future of dining in Detroit flash by my eyes, and for a moment I felt as if I was eating for the first time.”
I do so with an apology to the great Rolling Stone writer Jon Landau, who on first seeing Bruce Springsteen perform in 1974, eloquently enshrined The Boss’s place in rock with almost the same words. (Then he quit the writing business and became Springsteen’s manager and producer for the next 40-plus years.)
The wonderful Takoi began as the project of business partners Courtney Henriette and Brad Greenhill, the chef, who has never attended a culinary school (he studied industrial engineering at the University of Michigan).
“I’m self-trained really,” he says.
It started off essentially as a food truck in 2014, initially operating out of Two James Distillery in Corktown. They moved into catering only for a while and also held pop-ups while awaiting completion of its first incarnation, Katoi. That opened in early 2016 with the help of another partner, Philip Kafka (a Texan turned New Yorker turned Detroiter, who’s also involved in a project that constructed a small community of Quonset huts near Grand River Avenue just west of downtown).
There were rave reviews and accolades. But then in February 2017, just after Takoi became a semifinalist in the James Beard Foundation awards for best restaurants in the country, a fire destroyed it. Police suspected arson, though the blaze remains unsolved.
It was rebuilt and reopened some six months later, and then renamed after an article in the Detroit Metro Times pointed out that Katoi is a pejorative term in Thai for a transgender person.
Stumped and a little horrified, Henriette and Greenhill, who are LBGTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer)-friendly and supportive, explained that they had been totally unaware of the implication, and came up with Takoi, which has a different and less offensive meaning but keeps the rhythm of the original name. (The Urban Dictionary defines Takoi as an awkward moment when strangers attempt to pass each other on the street.)
As for the food, Takoi is simply the best I have had in Detroit in many years. It’s a whole new world of things already familiar, opening to me anew.
Admittedly, it took me a few moments sitting there, eating, to “get it.” Thai food is not a style I’m greatly fluent in, as much as I’ve traveled in Asia and eaten my way through a share of its various cuisines.
Grappling for some context about Takoi, I had a similar experience the first time I saw a Roy Lichtenstein painting in a museum years ago, and thought: “So, what’s so great about painting oversized cartoon characters?” Pop Art, of course, went on to leave a huge imprint on American culture.
Takoi’s menu has great distinction. There’s a depth, concentration, and balance between heat and coolness, the range of spices, the delight of moving from one superb bite to the next, and then onto an entirely different world when the next charming and exquisite plate is dropped gently onto the table. It made for a remarkable evening of endless, flawless pleasure in food.
To understand the complexity and achievement of Chef Brad Greenhill’s cuisine, take just one dish. Here is how he explains an amazing starter course dish of pumpkin:
“Initially, it’s roasted. We cut it up and glaze it with green curry paste. Paste is the cornerstone of Thai cooking. There is a paste in almost every dish we make,” he says. “The paste has green Thai chili, lemongrass, shallot, garlic, coriander seed … then we fry it with coconut milk and put a little lime leaf in it. It seems outwardly simple, but it’s very flavor-focused. There’s a lot going on.
“We then stir-fry [the pumpkin pieces] with the paste and coconut milk. Then we add chrysanthemum greens for a celery-like flavor, and then some Thai basil,” he continues. “We then make a bright vinaigrette [for dressing the greens] that has tamarind, lime, ginger, dry chili, and we garnish it by using a lot of nuts with fried shallots and cashews for texture.”
Oh, so simple! Just stir!
Then there are Greenhill’s sensational egg rolls, which he says came about almost as an afterthought.
“Another dish we make is short ribs, which cook 48 hours in a sous-vide system,” he says “There is a lot of meat between the bones that we can’t use in the rib dish. We use all the scraps in the egg roll, along with cabbage, Chinese celery, shiitakes, chili, and Thai peppers. And, we have our play on a Chinese hot mustard. We make a sweet Thai chili sauce and add herbs and lemongrass, which makes it more herbaceous and adds another level of flavor.”
The menu moves into another area altogether with a lovely cool scallop dish that includes a vinaigrette of young coconut, lime juice, and salt. “The coconut was something I discovered in Thailand,” Greenhill says. “The flesh is really soft and unctuous. You get subtlety in the spice of green chili, lemongrass, and shallots. Those are three things I always find in a Thai salad.”
Other dishes include an aromatic smoked beet salad, slightly wilted but moist and mysteriously spicy. And a rabbit “laap,” also sometimes spelled “larp” or “lahb.” It’s a meat and salad dish that is a signature of Thai cooking. The meat, usually pork, is ground and cooked and served with cilantro, green onion, ground dried chili pepper, lime, sliced shallots, and sprigs of spearmint.
Like many places today, Greenhill’s menu changes seasonally. It’s a walk-in restaurant only, unless you reserve what they call a “Blastoff” feast with friends — a one-price, chef’s choice experience.
In appearance and décor, Takoi is gritty and urban. There is, of course, the now-famous cyclone fence, 12 feet high, that surrounds the property. Greenhill says that New York architect Ishtiaq Rafiuddin, who also worked on the original restaurant’s design, chose it for a couple of reasons. First, for its transparency, so that people outside could see into the property, and secondly there was discussion of growing an enormous green wall up the fencing.
Critics have taken the fence to task for opposite reasons, calling it exclusionary.
But inside the fence sits the single-story restaurant building in what was once a concrete block tire garage, with a roll-off metal container jammed into the front end, surrounded by neat white pebble gardening and planting along the walkway to the entrance.
Once inside, it’s a whole other world of soft purple lighting and a maze of low banquette seating. There’s a high dark ceiling and a translucent blue-lighted back bar with shelves of bottles.
Table settings are simple, and seating is tight — a little cramped perhaps, but certainly serviceable.
The staff is delightful, friendly, and full of pride in the restaurant. They’re also cheerfully helpful on explaining the dishes, making dining at Takoi a genuinely memorable evening.
In summary, Takoi is hands-down the single best restaurant at which I have eaten, not just in Detroit, but anywhere in the last year or two. We should be proud to have a place like this in our city. It stands against New York’s best, San Francisco’s best, Chicago’s best, and Los Angeles’ best.
2520 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-855 2864. D Mon-Sat.