GREAT BARRINGTON -- Amy, my partner in inadvertently-obeying-the-law, needed a cultural escape from her summer artists' residency in a Catskills farmhouse. A creature of New York City where you can't belch without one person exclaiming "Gesundheit" and another saying "Enough with the burping already," she found herself sequestered by towering mountains and isolated from cellphone and internet access. The idea was to spend a month alone in the studio with materials and spirit.
"Come and rescue me!" she said over the property's landline phone three weeks in, far from public transit and unencumbered by a drivers license. "I need some time in the big city of Stockbridge."
After a prime August afternoon of reading in the lakeside hammock swaying between two oaks in my yard we felt hungry and lazy. Amy and I tend to budget our dinners while in the city, given its inexhaustible options. We agreed on finding a restaurant serving tasty and healthful cuisine in a neat setting for a reasonable price.
"What about that cool looking Chinese place we got take-out from on Christmas?" she asked. On the evening of Dec. 25, this pair of de jure Jews had deferred to an appealing self-stereotype; Chinese take-out and a Woody Allen movie. The food from Koii was delicious and our brief glimpse of the lively dining room and two-story waterfall flowing behind a modern bar left an impression.
I'd been to Koii once, years ago, but joined friends for drinks after their meal and experienced only the restaurant's cocktails and glowing orange mod décor. Red cushioned leather chairs and orange paper lanterns cast a distinct personality.
On the drive to Great Barrington, Amy swiped through Yelp reviews on her phone. Despite the misnomer (it's listed as "Koi." That spelling does appear on the wooden sign hanging in front of the building, but their website and Facebook page prefer Koii), the page is popular. Four- and five-star reviews from visiting urbanites cite favorite items from across the menu as well as the establishment's interior design among the qualities that distinguish it from other restaurants in the area. I heard "crispy duck" and the question was answered.
A friendly host stood just inside and greeted us right away. He and the rest of the staff dressed to match the setting, with skinny black ties accentuating fitted white shirts and black slacks. The reception area focuses on the immaculate bar -- the one backed by a waterfall that splashes comforting natural tones throughout the building -- which is framed by hulking beams of exposed wood. The aesthetics integrate naturally into the restaurant's palate of gray stone and brick.
It neared 9 p.m. on one of Tanglewood's big nights so the crowds were not out. Only two other tables in the intimate dining room to the left of the central bar were occupied. One held an energetic family of six including three children. An older couple quietly dined across the room. The waterfall's hush keeps sounds from travelling further than intended, so diners may act carefree without seeming careless.
Open dining areas to either side of the lobby feel private due to a clever floor plan permitting easy flow and easy seating. Freestanding tables are pushed together to accommodate large groups, while parties of four or fewer have the option of sliding into cushioned leather booths isolated by tall rectangles of glowing glass.
This was my first experience sitting in one of Koii's crimson booths and the effect is quite nice. Each of us was backlit by the booth's tall backs with lighted cubes built into them, which set a relaxing and deluxe mood.
The menu is large and written to entice, and Yelp reviews didn't trend toward any collective favorites. I suggest making use of waitstaff knowledge and opinions. Our dining room's waiter guided Amy toward stir-fry shrimp with broccoli ($16), and validated my inclination to order crispy duck with skin and garden vegetables ($19).
Dinner arrived quickly and was artfully arranged. My crispy duck and vegetables with rice was so good that I still think about it several times a week, and we ate there over a month ago. I mean that. I should really get that duck again. Maybe tomorrow.
My plate was polished clean by meal's end. Portions were generous, but I would have kept eating that crispy, fatty, perfectly salted duck eternally unless someone took it away from me. Koii sold me hook, line and sinker on the duck and the waterfall.
Amy enjoyed her shrimp very much and we shared plenty. Every vegetable and morsel of meat tasted fresh, not overpowered by spice, but finely tuned. And I don't often order from a house cocktail list, but their retro bar has a menu to match: zombie, mai tai, Long Island iced tea, lychee martini, scorpion bowl. I was tickled pink to see such an anachronistic lineup of cocktail names, and celebrated with a good old Long Island iced tea ($7), which hit the spot.
If you go ...
Koii Chinese Restaurant (according to the website, contradicting the sign out front, which reads, ‘Koi Oriental Restaurant'), 300 State Road (routes 23 and 183), Great Barrington (413) 528-5678 www.koiirestaurant.com
Style: Chic Chinese restaurant with ‘60's Modern décor and a lively atmosphere on some nights. Also, a waterfall.
Dress: Great place to wear your flashy retro outfit that rarely sees light of day, or don a sleek suit. Casual is fine, too.
Food: Well prepared Chinese cuisine.
Entertainment: The atmosphere is an accomplishment in itself. No performers.
Our rating: 4 mugs
Rating system: 1 mug, Run away; 2 mugs, Yawn; 3 mugs, Cheers; 4 mugs, "I'll be back"; 5 mugs, "Round's on me!"
Your rating: You can rate Koii Chinese Restaurant at www.berkshireeagle.com/The413.