Crème de la Club

Kyo aims for the heights -- but altitude sometimes gives way to attitude


1405 Washington Avenue; 314-621-9946.
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tue.-Sun.

Sliders $9
Skewers $11
Salmon $23
Mixed grill $23

I don't put much stock in dreams. In high school, my psychology teacher offered up two separate theories on dream interpretation. The first was your standard Freudian school of thought, that everything in a dream means something (most of which can be traced back to how lovingly you were breast-fed and/or whether you ever walked in on your parents when they were "doing it"). I was still dutifully jotting down notes when the teacher said, "Or, some people think dreams are just the result of synapses firing in the brain at random, unchecked or unfiltered by conscious thought. In other words, dreams might mean nothing." That sounded better to me: no worries about repressed childhood trauma, and a much shorter answer to the essay question on the final exam.

Later, when I wrote a column for a teen magazine, girls would send in letters describing their dreams and I'd work with a "dreamologist" to decode them. The job paid ridiculously well, which was the only reason I was able to tolerate the hours on the phone with the dreamologist, dissecting to an absurd degree some tweenager's nightmare about Buffy the Vampire Slayer (it was always about Buffy) descending on the high-school gym on a flying sea monkey and ruining the junior prom with a bucket of chocolate syrup and a Super Soaker.

But the other night I had a dream that made me think about Kyo. I'm hazy on the particulars, but I was in a high-school chemistry class, where I had to devise a way to combine elements from the periodic chart in order to create an entire snow-capped mountain in an Erlenmeyer flask. I remember feeling put-upon and frustrated, resenting the teacher for assigning a task that (even in a dream state) was pointless and impossible. I worked up a formula, handed it in and watched the teacher hack away with his nasty red pen. I got a B-minus.

There's something about Kyo that brings to mind moving mountains, or making one. The three-month-old Washington Avenue restaurant/bar/club/lounge was carved out of the side-by-side storefronts that once housed Tangerine and Hungry Buddha (two of restaurateur Blake Brokaw's former properties). Both were narrow, low-ceilinged eateries that featured funky décor but not much architectural grandeur. That's all changed, thanks to a six-figure buildout that's rendered the space a tri-level shrine to sleek and chic, swathed in gunmetal gray tones accented with hits of chrome (as with the barstools and matching two tops near the front) and a bar that seems to be illuminated from within.

The dance space is in the back, hidden by a floor-to-ceiling black curtain; the upstairs houses a DJ booth and VIP room. (The latter seems a bit much. Unless Nelly and Marshall Faulk are hitting Kyo every Saturday night, who needs it?) Restrooms are subterranean; on weekends they're guarded by an attendant who will open the door to one for you. Inside, the bathroom itself does most of the work, right down to turning on the light via a sensor that detects your presence.

Kyo's menu reads kind of Asian fusion: flash-fried shrimp, Beijing beef, a mixed grill, wok-seared Norwegian salmon, wasabi mashed potatoes.

Mashed spuds in a club? Somebody pinch me! More to the point, virtually every dish is competently prepared and fresh, boasting clean, crisp flavors and enough creativity to add a little memorable twist to each dish. A starter plate of "Sliders" — you know, like White Castle (but even smaller) — is accompanied by a ramekin of ginger-flavored ketchup, which surprises the tongue like few condiments can. Miso soup comes in a nifty clay pot, which almost seems to infuse the broth with an earthy boost. (It's also nice to see that the soup is ¶stocked with tofu and salmon; it's rare around here to see miso with actual fish in it.) Mango and cucumber slices perk up a salad of lettuce, cabbage and quick-fried shrimp, to happy effect. Grilled strip steak, rubbed with Asian spices, asserted itself as a worthy alternative to standard steak-house fare. Tufts of cilantro, slices of fresh lime and the occasional chili garnishes add pizzazz to many dishes, as with a plentiful appetizer bowl of flash-fried shrimp, light and greaseless, and a sour and spicy shrimp soup.

But when you dig beneath the dress-up, most of Kyo's menu reveals itself as bar food. "Spicy chicken lollipops" are wings. Too-dry chicken satay and grilled skewers (chicken, shrimp and beef) are hardly a step removed from the backyard barbecue. We all know what sliders are. And despite the accoutrements, the main courses aren't very Asian at all.

Tarted-up, well-rendered bar food, but bar food all the same. (Even the desserts — Kyo's most adventurous course on paper — merit a double-take. "Chocolate sushi" is rice pudding accented with strawberries and wrapped in a thin chocolate "paper." "Cookies and cream" is green tea ice cream with sugar cookies flavored with lemon grass.) And all of that is a little at odds with the glitzy surroundings — kind of the reverse of how the entryway, an unremarkable set of double doors that opens onto a gray, unfinished-looking foyer, doesn't mesh with the splendor that awaits within. (Don't get me started on the pair of thirtysomething guys in mover-shaker suits who wait on the sidewalk out front, at the ready to open the door for you. What's that about?)

Though its tagline reads, "Dine Drink Lounge," Kyo seems to concentrate on the middle one. The house lights are always off, making it hard to see exactly where you're supposed to go if you want dinner. An abbreviated row of U-shaped banquettes line the eastern wall opposite the bar. It's like sitting down to a three-course meal in the middle of a rave. (In fact, the DJ often starts spinning before the back room is officially opened for lounging and dancing.) The kitchen closes at 10 p.m. — geriatric hours, given the up-all-night ambiance. There's not even a limited menu between ten o'clock and the 1:30 closing time — which, to me, anyway, runs counter to the concept of lounging.

Kyo has presented itself with a difficult equation to solve. A space that wants to be a restaurant until 10 p.m. but confronts its patrons with pulsing club beats. A menu that promises fusion fare but delivers bar food extraordinaire. Some tweaking of the blend might take this place to the realm of snow-capped peaks, but as it stands, Kyo remains a bunch of synapses firing at random.

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