Dining » Fat Mouth

Cheese Heads

At Bill Crooks and Paul Khoury's new restaurant, the waitress didn't know jack.

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When the weather is cold and nasty, my all-time favorite comfort food -- mostly because it involves so little labor on my part -- is a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup. It's a culinary marriage that Campbell's Soup has promoted for years. Leave it to Bill Crooks and Paul Khoury, the founders of Kansas City's PB&J Restaurants Inc., to turn that simple idea into a quick-service concept called Say Cheese, which opened in Oak Park Mall two months ago.

Crooks and Khoury took over the vacated Johnny Rockets hamburger space in an oddball corner of the mall near the Nordstrom entrance. And with practically zero interior changes (except for putting up some paintings that once hung in the Northland's old Paradise Grill), they turned the shiny diner into a grill with a limited menu. It's not all grilled cheese, but there are several variations on that theme: a patty melt with Swiss cheese, a grilled BLT with American cheese, the Texas BBQ Melt with chicken topped by Jack and cheddar cheeses.

There's also macaroni and cheese -- though Khoury says they're still tinkering with that recipe -- along with a couple of salads, red-bean chili, milkshakes and ice-cream sundaes. A friend and I stopped in for dinner last week and were pleasantly surprised by the inexpensive food. My "classic grilled cheese" on thick country white bread was fine, and the tomato soup was thick and creamy. However, the dimwitted waitress at the counter, a pretty Ashlee Simpson look-alike, wins my nomination for the laziest and most clueless server of the year (so far). If a manager hadn't stepped in, we would still be sitting there hungry while she stood there and twisted her hair.

Maybe that's another little problem Crooks and Khoury can "tinker with" when they turn their attention to the 17-booth restaurant this month. The restaurateurs, who own the regional Red Robin burger franchise, want to open more Say Cheeses around the country. Not in shopping malls but in airports and in college towns, where students can, Khoury says, "go and get a grilled cheese and a bowl of tomato soup for 5 bucks at 2 in the morning." He's already eyeing Lawrence and thinking of adding wine and beer to the milkshake and soda selection.

They'll have to fix that mac and cheese first, though. And even though my friend's patty melt was almost as good as the kind served at Town Topic (1900 Baltimore), Town Topic has better fries and excellent waitresses. Maybe "Ashlee" should go there and get a lesson. Say please!

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