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A Foreign Affair

"This is very sexy food. It would be a good place to come for a date."

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The Marquis de Sade is said to have declared, "Sex is as important as eating or drinking, and we ought to allow the one appetite to be satisfied with as little restraint or false modesty as the other." The French put sex right where it should be in the sensual spectrum, somewhere between the perfect crème brûlée and a flute of Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque.

Sometimes, however, they get so obsessed with sex that they apparently have no problem dragging the reputation of a poor little Kansas City girl through the mud 30 years after her death. In particular, a new book by French writer David Bret uses little restraint in painting the late movie star Joan Crawford — who was still a skinny teenager named Billie Cassin when she fled Kansas City in 1925 — to look as sordid as a streetwalking putain.

I was telling my friend Peter about this trashy new book during an early dinner at Café des Amis, the second-floor French boîte located in a pre-Civil War building in Parkville. We were sharing an appetizer of coquilles St. Jacques au gratin (sautéed scallops baked in a bubbling béchamel sauce) while I regaled Peter with some of Bret's revelations about Crawford in her prestardom years, back when her life here in Cowtown was, according to this tome, a "blur of steamy sex, booze, torrid dancing, drugs and laughter."

"I vaguely remember when my life was like that," Peter said wistfully. He dipped a slice of baguette into the hot, creamy sauce. "I mean, you didn't have to be a movie star to have been wild and carefree in your early 20s."

True enough. I lived through my own blur of steamy sex, booze, drugs and laughter, only to replace most of those decadent habits over the years with an equally important cause: eating far too many rich dishes, such as coquilles St. Jacques au gratin. I had been just as wild in my youth as the legendary Crawford had been in hers, except that I didn't — as Bret claims about the actress — make grainy stag films with titles such as Velvet Lips.

At least, I don't think I did. I can't exactly remember what I was doing when I was as young as Guillaume Hanriot, the cheery young man from Champagne, France, who oversees the kitchen and two cozy dining rooms at Café des Amis.

The restaurant's owner, Didier Combe, is reportedly living in Massachusetts. In January, Combe filed a lawsuit against Continental Airlines, claiming that the airline had been negligent when it let Combe's ex-wife fly to Mexico with the couple's 3-year-old daughter.

"Didier comes in every three months or so. He's busy right now with other things," Hanriot had told me at one dinner. That explanation sounded like an understatement when I read the news about Combe's airline lawsuit a few days later. But it always seems as if there's some sort of romantic intrigue going on at Café des Amis.

Not long after waiters began serving escargot and sautéed duck in Café des Amis' lemon-yellow dining rooms, Combe's two partners got caught up in their own blur of steamy something and ran off to get married and open their own restaurant. (The airline lawsuit, however, involves the mademoiselle whom Combe married several years afterward.) Meanwhile Combe, who looks like a Gallic movie star, stayed on and has employed several talented young chefs in his tiny kitchen ("Flirt Club," October 10, 2002). The chef du moment is Frank Marciniak — from Paris, according to his co-worker Hanriot, who was both general manager and waiter that night.

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