What’s pop-up, what’s practice, what’s temporary, what’s permanent? New, experimental business models are giving chefs and entrepreneurs opportunities to test different service avenues–great for us customers when we’re interested in innovative experiences, but less so when we return on a Tuesday night only to find the chef gone, the room shuttered, or the concept changed.
Brad Greenhill, who for the last few years has put on pop-up dinners in Ann Arbor and Detroit, has been working toward a brick-and-mortar venue in the Motor City named Katoi, scheduled to open in the fall. Till then, he and partner Courtney Henriette have taken advantage of Jerusalem Garden’s move to open Katoi in Exile, a temporary summer restaurant in JG’s former space on Fifth Ave. Here he can keep practicing, so to speak, while the Detroit kitchen gets built. Though his previous culinary work was more wide-ranging, Greenhill’s focus at Katoi in Exile is on Thai-inspired food, and the new crazy-curly exterior paint scheme on the tiny building evokes the imagination and inventiveness behind his cooking.
Right now the feel is definitely less than permanent. The restaurant is–usually–open only Wednesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, with a break in between the two meals. You order at the tiny front counter, get a number, and then find a table inside or out to await delivery; food arrives as it’s made. Service is efficient and straightforward, but an extra smile or two wouldn’t hurt. The changing menu lists dishes in an unusual fashion–vegetables, noodles, and “pleasing things,” which includes items both appetizer and entree sized; prices give the best indication of probable size.
After eating there twice in the first couple of weeks, I can testify to a number of pleasing things on the menu. My hands-down favorite was a dish of grilled trumpet mushrooms, sliced thin, perfumed with lemongrass and anise-y herbs, and enlivened with chilies and shallots. It was a dish that inspired greed, and I selfishly didn’t want to share it. However, I was willing to divide the plate of charred asparagus with coconut yogurt; though the components were capably handled, pairing the grassy vegetable with a sweet coconut sauce didn’t produce an ideal match. Another dish pairing a vegetable with the tropical edible–fried squash blossoms filled with coconut cream–proved bland.
Assembled using mortar and pestle and generously seasoned with chilies and fish sauce, Greenhill’s som tam thai, Thailand’s signature green papaya salad, eaten with a side of sticky rice, absolutely sang on the tongue. I also enjoyed his porky banh mi, chicken satay (here spelled “sateh”), and chickpea “tofu”–triangles of fried chickpea-flour cakes, strewn with astringent Kaffir lime, and served with a sweet chili garlic sauce.
Opinions definitely differed on his Thai fried chicken. My husband and I found the meat moist and the crust admirably cracker crispy but the overall flavor rather dull and the accompanying coconut ranch dip unfortunate (and I usually love coconut in all its forms, sweet and savory). But friends visiting another night reported a different experience–tasty, brined meat, interestingly seasoned. It’s probably worth another try. I’m also hoping for noodle dishes with more flair the next time I go. Khao soi, yellow coconut curry noodles, is a pleasing, if standard, dish, and the mushroom ramen, a vegetarian soup with shiitakes, poached egg, and greens, was dull.
Katoi didn’t offer dessert on my visits. But at press time, Hamtramck candy maker Bon Bon Bon had just managed, Russian doll-like, to slide a teeny “pop-up counter” into Katoi’s tiny space. Bon Bon Bon fashions pricey square chocolates with standard and imaginative flavors and fillings, packaging them in artful cardboard wrappers.
Need you all rush over to Fifth Ave.before these pop-ups deflate? Maybe not. During my second evening at Katoi, our server stopped by to chat a bit. Business, she said, had been brisk and the reception so enthusiastic that Greenhill and Henriette were considering investing in real dishware and the long haul after a hiatus to open the Detroit store. Sounds like this latest temporary experiment may produce another permanent fixture in Ann Arbor’s lengthy restaurant lineup. Stay tuned and keep an eye on Facebook.
307 S. Fifth Ave.
(no phone number listed)
Wed.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. (days change frequently, so check the website first)
Not wheelchair friendly (very tight space, steps to main dining area)
Bon Bon Bon
Thurs.-Sat. 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
bons $3 each