By Charles Ferruzza
Last week, the original Blue Koi Noodles & Dumplings location in midtown (1803 West 39th Street) re-opened to the public after a four-month renovation following a fire in July. The 14-year-old restaurant was operating in a historic Restaurant Row storefront that had been home to several popular dining venues over the years, including the late legendary restaurateur Vic Fontana’s Veco Italian Restaurant.
During the months that the Missouri Blue Koi location was closed, patrons could still find the restaurant’s signature dishes – Shanghai Wonton Noodle Soup, Cantonese Roast Duck and Ants On A Tree – at the nine-year-old Leawood outpost of the Blue Koi (10581 Mission Road), which bills itself as “undeniably cool Chinese.”
In contrast to most traditional Chinese-American restaurants in the metro – the best example of this might be the original Dragon Inn restaurant in Overland Park (7500 West 80th Street) with its gilded décor and paper placemats – the Blue Koi in Leawood seems practically space age. Not the décor, which is so subtle that it could be a backdrop for the 1937 film, The Good Earth.
The menu is simplicity itself: the only true Cantonese-style menu item is the roast duck which, like most of the entrees here, can be delivered atop noodles or rice or in a steaming bowl of noodle soup. The nearest that Blue Koi gets to the mainstream Chinese-American repertoire would be Almond Chicken (although this chicken is marinated in mayonnaise, which doesn’t sound remotely authentic to me); still, even this dish is nothing like the glossy, sticky glop – bearing the same name — served at many Chinese buffets. It’s actually very attractive, very fresh-tasting.
Not everything served in this bustling restaurant is perfect. I’ve been served far too many scallion “biscuits” here that have been fried to the point of no return (and all the “awesome sauce” in the world can’t make something with the texture of cardboard seem palatable).
And yet, like many regular patrons to this bistro, I have my favorite dishes, including my go-to cure-all for a bad cold: a bowl of Ginger Basil Chicken, seasoned with fresh ginger and basil (two aromatic herbs with restorative powers) in a slightly sugary soy dressing. The slow-roasted pot roast may be the Blue Koi’s nod to the Great Plains, a hearty and rib-sticking portion of succulent braised beef lolling in a bowl of steaming soup or noodles or rice.
The Blue Koi has long been a favorite of my vegetarian friends, who appreciate the many meatless options with tofu (there’s even a very good braised organic tofu served with shitake mushrooms that’s just as robustly “meaty” as the braised pork version). In fact, my favorite starter on the menu is the mound of crispy, lightly fried tofu squares – they look like toasted marshmallows and are very nearly that airy – sided with the venue’s garlicky signature “awesome sauce.”
As a finale, the Blue Koi offers the usual Asian delicacies (sesame balls, red bean or green tea ice cream) and one ersatz creation that combine the best – or worst, depending on how you view it – of both Asian and delicatessen traditions: cheesecake wontons.
It’s a mashup of flavors and textures that doesn’t quite succeed in paying homage to either culture. But for fans of the Blue Koi, it’s one more example of pushing the culinary envelope…somewhere.
Longtime Kansas City food writer Charles Ferruzza’s weekly column appears on Shawnee Mission Post and Blue Valley Post Fridays.