It's important for a restaurant to have personality. Raytown's Blue Yuu, however, may be the only venue in the metro with a little too much personality. I happen to like the eccentricities of the place, but it's not for every taste. And for Raytown, the Blue Yuu is borderline outrageous — not just a restaurant but dinner theater.
The Blue Yuu would be considerably less interesting without general manager Chris Taylor. The man looks like a wrestler in a too-tight kimono, and he seems to juggle many roles in the dining room, including waiter and, for better or worse, self-appointed entertainer. Not unlike the vinegary kim chee served here, a little Taylor goes a long way. He can be abrasive and endearing at the same time, and the stories he tells of adventures at a raucous Raytown saloon — accompanied, he says, by a certain TV weathercaster — aren't what you hear repeated at Bo Lings or P.F. Chang's. If that's what it takes to set this unassuming Asian bistro apart from all the Chinese buffets in Raytown, so be it.
The owners of the Blue Yuu are chef Jimmy Yu and his wife, Rosemary, who previously operated the Dragon Dynasty restaurant in Leawood. Rosemary Yu says that when their rent in Leawood continued to climb, she and Jimmy looked for less expensive quarters. Needless to say, they found a deal in Raytown.
When I saw the building at 9700 East 63rd Street, the distinctive pitched roof made me wonder if the place was originally built to house a certain pancake house. Taylor says several culinary tenants have been in the spot, including a hamburger joint, but its past lives are made irrelevant by what awaits inside.
Bawdy is the word that sidled to mind when I was first confronted with the wild array of beads, paper lanterns, bamboo blinds and paper flowers. Naturally there's a giant, jade-colored Buddha — made of shiny plastic. At that moment, the music swimming out of the restaurant's speakers was George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."
The restaurant's name, Rosemary Yu says, comes from an exotic fish. But don't get your hopes up; this isn't a delicacy you can order off Blue Yuu's sushi menu. "It's really expensive," Taylor says. "We couldn't afford to serve it here."
The most expensive sushi roll on the current menu is a "real lobster roll." Rosemary Yu says it's made with the real thing, though it tastes like a genteel tearoom lobster salad wrapped in rice and a sheath of nori. The rest of the sushi selection is pretty standard. I sampled a tempura asparagus version when I dined with a vegetarian friend. She thought it tasted a little fishy.
Sushi is just one component of Jimmy Yu's elaborate menu. It's sort of a greatest-hits compilation drawing on Asian culture's Top 40: Vietnamese spring rolls (really good), crab Rangoon, Korean bibimbap bowls, phad Thai, pineapple fried rice (Chinese, by way of Thai) and pho bowls. There's cheesecake on the dessert menu — "Factory Cheese Cake," which I take to mean that it comes frozen from the Cheesecake Factory or has rolled off the Ford line in Claycomo.
There are plenty of Chinese-American standards, too, like the house specialty that Taylor convinced me to order. "Everyone loves our mango chicken," he insisted on my first visit. Though Raytown may adore it, I'd never order the dish again. The sautéed chicken and thick slices of fresh mango were tasty enough, but the cornstarch-based sauce was as sugary as a ramekin of melted lemon drops, and as bad an idea.
The meals that the menu calls "sizzling" more than made up for my disappointment. I've tasted both the pepper-beef version — with surprisingly tender meat — and an extraordinary marinated lamb. Both did indeed arrive on white-hot metal platters. The night I dined with David and Diane, we also shared a deftly seasoned, moderately intense Thai chicken with red curry. The green curry, Rosemary Yu told us, is the fiercely hot one.
That night, we were the only customers in the dining room. A steady stream of patrons came in to pick up phoned-in orders, and we began to envy them. Our lonely table made us a captive audience for the Chris Taylor show. "Too much information," Diane whispered after some of the manager's more personal revelations. Somewhere on cable, very high up the dial, a reality show awaits him. (On TV, though, the viewer could change channels or turn it off.)
The dining room was slightly busier a couple of nights later, when I returned with Bob, Rhiannon and vegetarian Crystal. The Vietnamese spring rolls are usually made with shrimp, but Jimmy Yu prepares them to order. He created a version with only carrot slivers, cellophane noodles and fresh cilantro for Crystal. We wanted to order the starter called China Moon, but then Taylor answered the "what's in it" question with a typical wisecrack: "So a Chinese guy bends over ..."
"The Don Rickles of Raytown," Bob said, dipping a spring roll into a sweet chili sauce as we all agreed never to order the China Moon.
We decided instead on the pan-fried pork dumplings, also made to order. (They were delicious but they arrived that night after we had finished our dinners and were waiting to pay the bill.)
Ah, but before ordering that night's dinner, we had other decisions to make. "Did you see that there's a fajita chicken on the menu?" Bob asked. He was tempted to order it but settled on the classic Chinese-American specialty of sweet-and-sour chicken, a dish that here none-too-healthfully combined thickly battered fried chicken in a thick, neon-red sauce. Recalling the mango chicken, this sauce tasted as if it had been flavored with cherry cola.
The Chinese dried pot, another showpiece in the Blue Yuu's theater of high temperature, is a metal pot filled with a fragrant and bubbling broth, celery, carrots, zucchini as well as shrimp, beef and chicken. "That's the Hunan version," Taylor explained. The Szechuan pot, he advised, is spicier. For her meatless entrée, the bibimbap, Crystal watched as Taylor — in that same ill-fitting kimono — theatrically mixed up ingredients in a dangerously hot stone bowl. All of it — rice, a raw egg, spinach, zucchini, carrots, black mushrooms, baby bok choy — cooks in the bowl, like a steamed casserole, one that provides its own offbeat satisfaction.
"We have tropical slushies," Taylor said, hoping to tempt us with something sweet. "We have mango, peach, honeydew ..." But the menu had already provided unexpected sweetness, so we passed on them. We also opted to forgo the Factory Cheese Cake and the egg custard. Taylor's rejection was evident as he took my credit card and went up to the big plastic Buddha. He handed a bag of carryout boxes to a couple of young women before returning with my receipt.
"I went to high school with those girls," he confided. "They hate me."
"Do you think he was serious?" Crystal whispered after he stepped away. "Or was that part of his act?"
Yuu got me.