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Don of a New Day

Don Pepe's Spanish Cuisine brings back an old, familiar character.


Jose "Don Pepe" Fernandez's life would make a great TV movie. He starts off working for his uncle, a talented chef in Madrid. The ambitious Jose grows up and lands a coveted position as a private chef to Aristotle Onassis. Later, he moves to the United States and winds up in -- of all places -- Kansas City.

In this legendary metropolis on the Missouri River, Fernandez creates the persona of the vivacious "Don Pepe," a flirtatious and charming restaurateur straight out of the old school, as adept working the front of the house as he is clanging pots and pans in the kitchen. He opens and closes two popular namesake restaurants before being arrested on drug charges in 1990. He pleads guilty and goes to jail.

But all really heart-wrenching TV movies end on an upbeat note, and Fernandez's story, far from being played out, has taken a happier path. After doing his time, Fernandez got out of prison in 1994 and started to reinvent himself once again. "He's had more comebacks than John Travolta or Cher," says a friend of mine. "He vanishes for a while, and then, boom, he's back in the news." In 1995, Fernandez turned a former brake-and-muffler shop on Southwest Boulevard into the stylish Café Barcelona. Five years later, he sold that venue (which reopened as Carmen's on the Boulevard) to open El Patio a few blocks to the south. There, he restored a long-vacant building that, a century earlier, had housed a saloon owned by a Kansas City cop named Beery, father to 1930s movie star Wallace Beery.

That historic location had a lot of energía animada but no convenient parking, which turned off even devoted Don Pepe fans. He shuttered the place in 2002, took off his chef's jacket and started working part time at the gas station of the Costco store in Lenexa. "It's one of the best jobs I've ever had," says Fernandez, who's still working there. "I have terrific benefits. I have a flexible schedule. And I get to help people and talk to them all day."

His Costco career is one of the reasons Fernandez only oversees the kitchen on weekends and occasional weeknights at his latest culinary fling, Don Pepe's Spanish Cuisine. The one-month-old restaurant is located back in the old Café Barcelona/Carmen's on the Boulevard space. On most weeknights, Fernandez has installed another chef to make his paella dishes, his garlicky shrimp appetizer and his flaky empañadas. "His name is Carlos," Fernandez says. "But I call him Tarzan because he jumps up and down so much."

This Tarzan is king of the urban jungle when it comes to expertly re-creating Fernandez's most luscious signature appetizers, such as the cabo de hacha, a plate of supple sautéed scallops drenched in a satiny pool of lemon-yellow saffron cream sauce.

"This is one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth," said my friend Cathy. "I want to take a bath in this sauce."

She was equally taken with the empañadillas de loma. The two pastry puffs deflate like balloons when they're pulled apart, but they're still airy and delicious, the flaky dough barely held together by molten cheese, spicy chorizo and potatoes. And we were insane to order the pesto ravioli -- three fat pasta pillows stuffed with ricotta cheese and herbs afloat in a flannel-thick Gorgonzola cream -- as an appetizer. It's so rich, it should be eaten as a main course.

As he sipped a martini, my friend Bob insisted on bypassing the lovely chilled, chopped salad that usually accompanies the dinners. Instead, he wanted to share the more theatrical (and expensive) Mediterranean salad, a jumble of greens tossed with slices of grilled chicken, chilled shrimp, artichoke hearts, rings of red onion and bright-green asparagus spears.

"Isn't it fantastic?" he asked.

Cathy and I shot disappointed glances toward each other. It's certainly elaborate (and, again, more suitable as a meal than as a predinner course), but "Pepe's famous strawberry dressing" was the color and consistency of runny wallpaper paste and not much more exciting in the flavor department. I much prefer this restaurant's tastier house salad, a mixture of ice-cold romaine and iceberg lettuces thickly dressed with a simple vinaigrette and lots of grated Parmesan cheese.

When our server, Matt (a charming improvement over the less attentive Carmen's staffers), cleared away the appetizer dishes, we wondered how Tarzan would master the intricacies of Fernandez's signature creations. His namesake shrimp concoction, for example, is tossed in a subtle tomato sauce seasoned with basil and anisette. As it turned out, he did very well with that dish, but he fell off his vine when it came to the two other dinners. Cathy's veal Don Juan was disappointingly salty -- yes, the dish included a sheath of prosciutto, but the veal tasted excessively briny. And for Bob's Filet de Luna, a lovely olive-oil-and-pimento cream sauce covered charbroiled beef medallions that were chewy and tough.

"Well, the tapas were divine," Cathy said afterward, looking around at the nearly empty tangerine-and-violet dining room. "But maybe you have to come in for dinner when Don Pepe's in the kitchen."

That's precisely what I did on the following Saturday night, dropping by the restaurant -- which was packed this time -- for a solo supper at the bar. Fernandez was working the dining room like an old Vegas performer, purring over regular patrons, flirting with two middle-aged matrons ("If you don't see what you want on the menu, just tell me and I'll make it for you right now!") and clucking over the way a certain dish arrived ("Take it back to the kitchen!").

In an era when it's difficult to get a corporate-trained manager to even come to the table, Fernandez is a refreshing anachronism: He makes you feel as if you're really dining in his house.

Juggling his time between the kitchen and the dining room, he didn't miss a thing. Spotting me at the bar, where I was dipping a spongy slab of bread (from Bagel Works, not Roma Bakery, as I had suspected) into the buttery garlic-and-pepper sauce that had drenched the pink shrimp of my gambas al ajillo, he narrowed his eyes. "I have fresh tuna tonight."

I had been gazing at the pasta choices -- many of them survivors from the Carmen's menu -- but it's true, I do have a fondness for a firm hunk of tuna. I nodded, then returned to my favorite tapas in the Fernandez repertoire, the sumptuous "Spanish potato omelet," which is really a soaring tower of buttery potato slices layered with green peppers and onion and "wrapped" in a paper-thin cloak of fried egg. It was superb, but I had barely made a dent in it when Fernandez whisked it away to make room for my dinner, a beautifully grilled tuna steak surrounded by a soothing lemon-and-dill cream sauce.

I didn't see Fernandez again until I was ready to poke my fork into a fluffy square of tiramisu. "I must confess to you that we do not make that dessert here," Fernandez whispered. "It is a very good dessert, but we get it, like many other restaurants, from New York."

"If you want to taste my dessert," he said proprietarily, "you must order my flan."

After two bites of the tiramisu -- which wasn't bad -- I felt guilty, pushed it away and ordered Fernandez's flan, a silken custard shimmering under an amber-colored caramel sauce. It was exquisite. So fabulous, in fact, that I returned a few days later at lunch, gulped down a bowl of tortellini and savored every sinful bite of yet another seductive flan. I even considered ordering one to take home with me. To eat later while watching a TV movie, of course.

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