"Don't use the word nightclub," insists Nick Pruitt, the thin, stylishly dressed assistant general manager of the venue. "We prefer to call it a restaurant and hot spot. It's not a nightclub. We don't have a lighting system, and we keep the two entities separate."
The two entities, in this case, are the restaurant and the, uh, hot spot. They do occupy the same room, if you want to get technical about it, but not at the same time. Most of the time, the long space with the brick walls, black tables and plasma-screen TVs is strictly for dining. After the clock strikes 10 p.m., the round tables in the center of the room are pushed to the back so that hot spotters can use the polished wood floor for dancing to either a DJ or a band, depending on the night or cruising or drinking or whatever.
It's an interesting concept for several reasons, especially because of its location in the center of "old" Overland Park which looks very much like it did in 1951. It has never been a neighborhood known for its sophisticated dining. Or clubbing, for that matter.
The friends I brought along with me to dine at Tonic all thought the place was "too hip" for its location in the heart of suburban Squaresville. This was the same venue that once housed the Pub on Santa Fe and, after that, a gathering place called the Schoolhouse Bar and Grill. According to a friend of mine who frequented the joint, the Schoolhouse had the body of an actual school bus as a decorative feature, and the waitresses dressed as schoolgirls. That seemed like a concept almost too racy for Overland Park, the "naughty schoolgirl" fantasy having inspired dozens of porno movies over the years.
It may have been too hot to handle the Schoolhouse was nearly gutted in a fire last summer. After that, the owners decided to graduate to a more grown-up theme ... and out poured Tonic. Now, I can't speak for what happens in the place after 10 p.m., because I came only to eat. But the dining experience was so head-tripping that I can only imagine what takes place when the room takes on its other personality.
Tonic seemed almost conventional when Bob, Patrick and I walked through the front door into the saloon side of the operation, which boasts a bar (where smoking is permitted), a few tables and a very large illuminated tank filled with tropical fish and cloudy water.
Walking into the adjacent dining room is like crossing into another country. There's a curvy and lushly upholstered VIP area sectioned off from the rest of the room. There are lots of shiny tables with flickering oil lamps, and TV sets play hypnotic, undulating and almost psychedelic images. Oh, and then there's the music.
We were perusing the menu when Bob commented on the soundtrack. "Is it trance? Is it techno? It's, like, sex-club music!" It wasn't your typical Johnson County dining-room Muzak, I'll tell you. In fact, as I tried to decide whether to try the crab rangoon phyllo rolls or the coriander-crusted tuna, the eerie, pulsating music triggered a flashback to a night back in the early 1980s. There I was, wending my way through a smoky, sweaty, dimly lighted nightclub, when I came face to face with a hairy construction worker dressed up as ... a naughty schoolgirl. But that's another story. Let's get back to the rangoon.
And back to the present. Chef Jonathon Dallen's menu is even sexier than the music. It offers 17 sensual tapas, a quartet of little pizzas, and an appealing array of sandwiches and salads. There are only five traditional entrée choices, but they're unexpectedly snazzy, including a 6-ounce Chateaubriand filet and pork tenderloin roasted with fresh rosemary and Dijon mustard.
Dallen, a 22-year-old graduate of the Art Institute of Atlanta's culinary program, has a distinctive visual and imaginative style that blends well with Tonic's offbeat décor and personality. Yes, he cooks up the stuff one expects to find in a Kansas bar cheeseburgers, a BLT, waffle fries and peel-and-eat shrimp but the unusual choices are what really score here.
I loved his version of crab rangoon: fat little phyllo pillows stuffed with a creamy seafood filling. The miniature crab cakes were extraordinary, and I could have eaten a dozen of the crispy spring rolls, crammed with bits of pink shrimp and served with a vividly green but mild-tasting wasabi mayonnaise.
This isn't a nightspot that serves food, says Dallen, but a real restaurant making its own culinary statement. "Yes, I hear people saying that the food is pretty sophisticated here, but we're finding out that's what our clien- tele wants."
Bob and Patrick loved the tapas, but they really raved about their entrées. Bob's marinated chicken breast was plump and succulent, perched on a mound of herb-flecked whipped potatoes and perfectly cooked fresh green beans. Patrick's 14-ounce strip steak was juicy and tender, as fine as any steakhouse version. And I was dazzled by Dallen's slices of moist, deftly seasoned pork tenderloin, sided with a generous pile of sautéed spinach.
For dessert we shared Dallen's clever "Chocolate Tasting," a large white plate scattered with pretty little delicacies: a tiny scoop of fudgy ice cream, a miniature chocolate pot de crème, a dense cocoa tartlet splashed with caramel and a swirl of espresso mousse, and a shot glass filled with a foamy concoction of heavy cream and Godiva liqueur. Patrick immediately sipped up that last item through a candy straw. "It's my kind of tonic," he said.
There were hardly any other patrons in the dining room that night, but it was considerably busier a week later when I returned with Jennifer. The dinner crowd wouldn't have looked out of place at Red Lobster, and they were unlikely patrons for the hip setting of Tonic. "We're the youngest people in here," Jennifer whispered. That fact was confirmed by our beautiful young waitress, Alese, who informed us that the raucous folks mingling across the room were members of Wyandotte High School's class of 1960.
"One of them is related to one of our servers," Alese said. "Believe me, the crowd here gets a lot younger as it gets later."
I wondered what the Class of '60 thought of the techno music and those swirling shapes on the TVs. I'm still not sure what I think of them; it's been a couple of decades since I had dinner during the middle of an acid trip. But that's another story.
Jennifer and I shared two terrific tapas: tempura-clad slices of sweet potato served with a silky candied-ginger aïoli, and thick shards of meaty portabella mushrooms that were also dipped in tempura, flash-fried and served sizzling hot with a sweet chile glaze dipping sauce.
Jennifer ignored the fancier entrées and ordered the fried crab-cake burger, which had a punchy chile kick. My pork tenderloin sandwich wasn't all that exciting, but the waffle fries were delicious and so was the Caesar salad that I ordered.
Chef Dallen thinks his signature dessert is the apple-crumble tart, served hot in a little cast-iron pan and topped with cinnamon ice cream. It is fabulous, but so is the warm, chewy brownie topped with whipped cream and toasted peanuts. Old-fashioned desserts such as these definitely have a toniclike effect on me. I felt practically energized with each bite.
The other positive effects that Tonic had on my spirit were the very reasonable prices, the attentive and charming servers, and one of the very best after-dinner cups of coffee I've had in many months. It's potent stuff, baby. I was up for hours.
Who knew that this unexpected Tonic could have such restorative power? It may be only 20 minutes or so from midtown Kansas City, but on the coolness timeline, it's, like, far out.