One morning, passing by a patisserie near our hotel, we watched an obese American in a stained cotton dress and Birkenstocks poking her pudgy fingers toward the pastries and asking over and over, "What's it filled with?"
Rita shuddered. She was even more horrified a few hours later when we stopped at a bistro and saw the same blubbery American in the same dirty ensemble. "But what does the meal come with?" she yelled at the waiter. "Does it come with a salad? Do I get bread?"
"See that?" Rita hissed. "That's why the French hate the Americans. Ils sont vulgaires! They look at her and see fat, stupid pigs." With that, she stuck out her tongue at the woman, who nearly choked on her baguette.
So it's amusing -- for me, anyway -- that pigs (or porcs, as they would say in Paris), are the symbol for French-born restaurateur Patrick Quillec's third restaurant, the two-month-old Café Paris. In France, pigs are a traditional icon for a neighborhood brasserie. "It's a playful element," says the restaurant's publicist, Linda Rostenberg, who adds that it's no reflection on the types of customers coming to the cool, dark dining room with its massive gilded mirrors and aubergine-colored draperies. Still, on each of my three visits, I overheard three different diners ask their waiters, "What does the dinner come with?"
The young and gracious servers patiently explain that salads here are a la carte (although meals do include bread and butter). Getting a salad with dinner is a relic of the long-forgotten days of the "American Plan" -- when restaurants served specific but all-inclusive meals only at set hours -- and the "European Plan" (a French innovation from the 1800s), which allowed guests to order from an a la carte menu at their convenience. That sort of dining lasted until World War I, but serving a salad with meals became a Midwestern tradition. It's a sign of how things have changed in this town that the diners who asked what came with dinner simply shrugged and ordered salads. A decade ago, customers threw fits when a salad wasn't covered by the dinner price.
That said, even I was surprised by the miniature but costly house salad, barely a handful of greens and a tomato slice splashed with tarragon vinaigrette. Who said nouvelle cuisine was over? It's well worth paying a few extra bucks and getting one of the more elegant -- and heartier -- salad creations from chef Max Millier, who is Quillec's brother-in-law. I was partial to his jumble of pale green frisee (in Missouri parlance, that's good old curly chicory) tossed with crisp bits of bacon, buttery croutons and a freshly poached egg. This classic bistro item is only now catching on at Café Paris; the restaurant's best-selling salad is more familiar and looks less like a breakfast dish. It's an assemblage of jade-green endive curls sprinkled with crumbles of pungent Roquefort, walnuts and chopped tart apples.
I found no reason to stick out my tongue at anyone. In fact, Café Paris diners should be adventurous enough to try a chilled beef tongue, sliced like roast beef (which it resembles in taste and consistency) and served with a piquant mustard sauce, crisp cornichons and pearl onions. It's one of this restaurant's great culinary secrets. But, Quillec brags, "we sell more of it every week."
Fans of Quillec's first two restaurants (Hannah Bistro and Café Provence) will find a variety of dishes here that aren't on his other menus, such as the delectable duck a l'orange. Millier stuffs the meaty bird with celery, onion and herbs and roasts it slowly, basting the crackly crust with a thick, caramel-colored sauce flavored with orange juice and Grand Marnier that takes a day to prepare. It's one of the most succulent dinners I've ever tasted.
To accompany it, I ordered a dish of sautéed asparagus, insisting that it be cooked with Pernod in the elegant manner Millier prepared it when the restaurant opened in May. (He stopped after too many customers complained about the anise flavor of the potent liqueur.) It was excellent, as were the crispy, puffy pommes frites alongside my friend Bob's grilled steak, a juicy Kansas City strip.
Pommes frites, the original French fries, are a signature side dish here, served with steaks and sandwiches (including an expensive but flavorful charcoal-grilled cheeseburger) or alone as an appetizer. But I discovered that when it comes to the world's most styl-ish tater (hand-cut and blanched in the kitchen), perfection depends on ordering the dish when Café Paris is at its busiest. Get there too early and you wind up with soggy, greasy erasers; too late and they taste dry as pencils.
Still, I prefer fried potatoes to the creamy but bland mashed kind that accompanied the lamb shank, a mahogany-glazed, rosemary-perfumed hunk of meat so tender it barely clings to the bone. My friend Martha had ordered it but actually spent more time gazing at the dish than eating it.
And what was all-American macaroni and cheese doing on the menu? Trust me, few home-style restaurants prepare the dish in the sexy, Gallic style that Millier does, with a thick, creamy sauce of sharp cheddar and Swiss, garlic and white wine and lots of smoky bacon. Millier fumbled, though, on a visually attractive paillard of chicken draped in a vibrant orange pepper sauce that looked as if it might have a fiery bite but was shockingly tasteless, as if the sauce has been made from melted Crayolas instead of roasted red peppers. Mon dieu! Exile this dish to the isle of Elba!
Pushing that plate away, I waited for the clatter of the four-tiered dessert cart, which our server wheeled over as if it contained sculptures from the Louvre rather than half a dozen tarts and cakes baked in the restaurant's kitchen by Millier and sous chef Brad Donaldson. (The original pastry chef, Barbara Davis, is still listed on the dessert menu but lasted barely a month.) Most of the pastries deserved such reverence, particularly a trio of tiny pots filled with crème brûlée flavored with chocolate, raspberry and Grand Marnier. A moist, custardy banana bread pudding was equally impressive, and the homemade sorbets (a fresh-tasting raspberry one night, a soothing watermelon-champagne the next) made something heavenly out of little more than ice, fruit and sugar.
I did make a porc of myself over that dessert cart, but I never asked any truly embarrassing questions that might expose me as a foreigner. After all, when it comes to visiting Overland Park, I'm still a tourist myself.