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.
Combe's surrogates have kept the menu consistent, probably because this intimate bistro has loyal followers who like the stability of a dinner selection that always includes lamb, beef, duck, pork and half a dozen seafood dishes.
After making quick work of a tiny jumble of fresh greens lightly dressed in a simple vinaigrette, Peter all but gnawed on the bones of the splendid grilled rack of lamb, cote d'agneau aux herbes. "Fabulous, fabulous," he said, dipping each tender chop into a dark puddle of Cabernet tarragon sauce.
For me, Marciniak's stuffed trout came steaming from the oven, covered with a layer of chopped wild mushrooms and herbs tucked into the center, all splashed with a sinful white truffle oil.
"This is very sexy food," Peter said later, as he cracked the caramelized surface of a petite crème brûlée with a spoon. "It would be a good place to come for a date."
That was obviously true on the bitterly cold Friday night when I returned to dine with two of my amis, Lou Jane and Franklin. An attractive couple sat at the next table, their fingers interlaced; I assumed they were on their second date. When I asked, they both laughed and announced that they were getting married the next day. At a corner table, another young couple was also holding hands and gazing deeply into each other's eyes.
Lou Jane says French restaurants provide the best culinary foreplay because the cuisine uses a lot of supposedly aphrodisiac ingredients such as the steamed mussels floating in a soothing cream-and-sherry broth that Franklin indulged in before dinner. Lou Jane and I shared the sautéed frog legs one of the most powerful aphrodisiacs ever, I'm told. The exquisite garlic-wine sauce was nearly as potent as the meaty limbs, and we lustily sopped up the lingering sauce with hunks of warm bread.
Because it was a weekend night, the two small, dark dining rooms had filled up quickly. And because the tables were, as usual, pushed a bit too close together, eavesdropping was unavoidable. When the man sitting behind Lou Jane started quoting radio right-winger Michael Savage, I half-expected her to turn and toss a frog leg at him. The guy piped down only when he started listening to our conversation, which included not-so-blurry recollections of various sexual escapades.
I was too focused on my filet de fletan to add much to the conversation; in spite of the Marquis de Sade's suggestion, even sex talk seemed less important than my hunk of lovely halibut slathered in a satiny sauce made with saffron and citrus crème fraiche. It was almost too rich to eat, but I forced myself.
Franklin was excessively fond of a tender filet dripping with a blue-cheese-and-brandy demi-glaze. After Lou Jane recovered from her initial disappointment that the Berkshire pork chop was boneless she prefers the bone, you know she noted that it was gorgeously tender and discreetly cloaked in a glaze of apple and sherry.
Soon enough, we realized that, despite the Marquis' encouragement to satisfy one's appetites with "little restraint," there's something to be said for a bit of modesty at the end of the meal.
Franklin raved over his doll-sized dessert combo plate: a tiny espresso cup filled with a dark-chocolate mousse and a crème brûlée not much bigger than a cosmetic compact. "It's the perfect size," he said. "You can't overindulge on sweets this way, even if you want to."
Unfortunately, one of this restaurant's signature pastries, the classic upside-down tarte tatin, had a ridiculously soggy crust but we ate it anyway.
If you simply can't avoid giving in to temptation, Café des Amis is a good place to either satisfy your appetite or get a running start for an evening of serious amour.