Judging by the price of houses in Holywood, Co Down, the recession has given the place a body swerve.
The town appears immune to the economic gale blowing from Belfast to Belleek and this resistance means business as usual for restaurants and bars and, for greedy adventurers, a continuing supply of quality food and service.
One restaurant that appears as bulletproof to downturns as the town is Asian fusion specialist Koi. A modern, bright and bustling canteen, Koi has enormous visual appeal with its vibrant orange colour scheme. It’s warm and cheerful and feels a bit like a posh cafeteria you might find on a classy cruiser.
But it’s the prices that are more attractive than anything. Four of us went there one Sunday evening and ordered loads from the different Thai, Chinese, Malaysian and even Korean menus and still struggled to spend £100.
Youthful staff are welcoming and friendly, keen to impart their knowledge of the dishes. Not being familiar with Malaysian or Korean, we find it useful to know that there is a fair bit of difference between Nasi Goreng and Nasi Lemak, both fried rice dishes.
They are actually remarkably different, the Koi version of Goreng being a large packed bowl of fried rice with chicken, peas and shrimp paste spiciness, crowned with a lightly whisked and briefly fried omelette. The Lemak is a more sophisticated affair with similar volumes but deeper flavours. Soaked in coconut milk and then steamed, the rice has a creamy, almost risotto-like texture and is served with spicy sideshows of anchovies, roasted peanuts, shrimp and chicken.
But the evening starts with a spectacular set of starters. For the uninitiated, as we were, the choice is simple: the Koi signature combo. A selection of bite-size treats from the four corners of the Far East are assembled on a dish and looks like a tiny high-society wedding with umbrellas and glttery bits. There are Korean dumplings, Malaysian lettuce rolls, Vietnamese spring rolls and Japanese prawn toasts. They are all outstanding, crispy, juicy, fresh and crunchy with appearances of finely chopped vegetables and the lightest possible tempura.
There are more conventional dishes you’ll recognise like the crispy aromatic duck (a quarter is tonnes for two sharing) which comes shredded and with meltingly tender meat mixed in with crispy bits of dark roast skin. The pancakes are tracing-paper thin and the plum sauce won’t strip the enamel from your teeth with sweetness.
Other starters, including the Thai Tom Yam soup, are just the ticket for anyone who needs a kick of dry spice. The soup is a classic which I remember from a trip to northern Thailand 10 years ago. The Koi version with king prawns is exactly as I remember it: spiced with chilli, lemongrass, lime leaves and other herbs. It’s proper warrior food. A bowl of this stuff will fortify you and prepare you for anything.
Meanwhile, a scan of the room shows that the Holywood set is as sophisticated as the local accent. They know their menu and most people seem to be brought a steady stream of small plates and dishes.
That’s the tapas phenomenon again. For some this is a plague of meaningless, tiny dinners; for others, it’s a chance to explore and discover. (It’s also kinder on the wallet and the waistline if you approach it with discipline — if you don’t, you end up doing what we all do in sushi bars and end up eating dozens of the wee things).
The main courses are substantial. The Nasi Goring and Nasi Lemak leftovers almost qualified for the takeaway box to bring home (but we persevered). The advisor has a serious love for Singapore noodles and Koi’s version, using proper vermicelli, is textbook. The curry powder is strong but not overpowering and the jewels hidden within the fine strands of vermicelli are charsiu pork, shrimp, chicken and various vegetables. It’s complete and deliciously moist and rich.
We continue into the evening slowly working our way through a Thai chilli holy basil dish that has bitter, sweet and tangy notes.
Nothing precious about Koi, yet nothing cheap or vulgar either. There are gluten-free dishes, noodle bar, wrap corner, vegetarian and children’s menus, Asian tapas, salad bar and chips.
Koi is friendly, elegant, reserved and informal and the food is exciting and entertaining. It’s an absolute must for anyone with even the vaguest interest in taking a step up from a regular Chinese.
Tom yam soup £3.90
Koi combo x 2 £11.80
Aromatic duck £8.90
Singapore vermicelli £9
Thai chilli holy basil £9.50
Sweet & sour chicken £8.80
Egg fried rice £0.50
Nasi goreng £8.80
Nasi lemak £8.80
Asahi beer £3
½ bottle wine £8
Diet Coke x 2 £3
Large sparkling water £3.40
10-12 Shore Road, Holywood BT18 9HX
Tel: 028 9042 4238.