Dining » Restaurant Reviews

Cool and Koi

The Blue Koi is a decorative addition to 39th Street's restaurants.

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For most Kansas Citians, Chinese food has always meant the Americanized Cantonese dishes -- stir-fried meats, rice bowls and lo mein noodles in oyster sauce -- that have been served in the city since the days of Hung Far Low. (I'm serious about that name, too: Hung Far Low was one of the few Oriental restaurants listed in the 1914 City Directory.) Now greater Kansas City is home to nearly 150 Chinese restaurants, and at most of them, the menus aren't that different from the stuff at Hung Far Low. No Chinese revolution has taken over any kitchens: Fortune still smiles on standbys like kung pao chicken and chow mein, and the city has more Chinese buffets than old-fashioned cafeterias like Furr's. At the same time, the idea of the neighborhood mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant faces real competition from PF Chang's China Bistro. The corporate chain is a creation of restaurateur Paul Fleming, whose tastefully appointed restaurants put enough of a modern, sophisticated spin on the same old sweet-and-sour pork that it at least seems exciting and contemporary.

That's one reason why the Blue Koi's arrival on 39th Street has been as startling as a protest in Tiananmen Square. Owned by true Changs, who operate the successful Genghis Khan Mongolian Barbecue just around the corner, Blue Koi isn't a Chinese restaurant but a hip dumpling-and-noodle shop. It's casual and low key, with paper napkins and uncloaked tables, its walls and woodwork artfully sponged in shades of ocean blue, saffron and mandarin red. The only reminders of the long, narrow room's former incarnation as Vic Fontana's dark and seductive Veco's Italian Restaurant are the slick, dark umber Mediterranean floor tiles. On one night, Sade warbles in the background, on another there's a soothing rainstorm on the sound system.

The servers, who are predominantly non-Asian, wear tan T-shirts and blue jeans. (One muscular waiter with flowing black hair seems as if he's waiting for Bruce Weber to discover him for the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.) They have their own distinctive performing styles, which range from engagingly personable to completely inattentive. Yes Dorothy, you're not in a Kansas City Chinese restaurant anymore. You can have a drink on that -- wine, beer or something mixed, but no elaborate tropical concoctions like Boo Loo Bowls, Scorpions and Mai Tais. Instead, the Blue Koi pays far more attention to tea, especially during its Gong Fu tea ceremonies.

The Gong Fu experience -- offered between 2 and 5 p.m. -- isn't as formal or ritualistic as a Japanese tea ceremony, but it's still somewhat time-consuming. I stumbled across it when I took a late lunch one afternoon and was waiting for my order of pan-fried shrimp, pork and chicken dumplings to arrive. I was with my friend Bob, who is game for anything theatrical, and he was delighted when the manager brought over the works: a round stainless steel Gong Fu tea boat, a tiny terra-cotta pot, an array of dainty cups and the intensely fragrant jasmine tea we had requested. I was less bowled over by the ceremony, which seemed to involve a lot of pouring -- and dumping -- of hot water, than Bob. He was spellbound by the descriptions of the porous clay used to make the pot, the difference between the thimble-sized aroma cups and the slightly larger drinking cups and the jasmine pearls' having been "scented seven times." That was six times too many: It tasted like hot perfume. On my next visit, I ordered plain white tea. By the cup.

At Blue Koi, other drinking ceremonies occur offstage -- you can see one of them if you sit near the exposed stainless steel kitchen at the back. That's where someone who appears to be the manager shakes up the restaurant's cold, flavored "bubble teas," faux milkshakes in clear plastic cups with straws wider than bamboo shoots. These pop drinks, a confection of ice, nondairy "milk," tea and pea-sized tapioca pearls, are all the rage in San Francisco's Chinatown right now.

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