On my second visit to the Village, a new Lebanese restaurant in Overland Park, I ran into a guy I know who was finishing his lunch in the nearly empty dining room just as my friend Carol Ann and I were seated at a booth. He used to wait tables at a classy, now-defunct bistro in Westport.
"How was it?" I asked him.
"The food's good," he said, "but I ate my entire meal without a napkin."
My response was an obvious one: "Why didn't you ask the server for a napkin?"
"After he brought my meal," the man said with a laugh, "I never saw him again."
That story is a metaphor for the many eccentricities at the Village, a month-old restaurant operated by Bassam Derbas, a congenial Lebanese native who never before has run a full-service dining venue. He has worked in the culinary field, though. Years ago, Derbas was general manager for a Mrs. Fields' cookie store. Derbas is an expert baker — his baklava is outstanding — but he's learning, on his feet, that a full-service restaurant is a very different dish.
The first night that I ate dinner in the restaurant, my friends and I were the only customers in the buttercream-colored dining room. The place was so warm that I found myself gulping glasses of water. My friends Truman, Bob and Deb also downed water because there wasn't much else to drink on the menu. A nice-looking teenager brought out iced tea, but it was far too sweet. That's the preferred way to drink tea in Beirut, hot or cold, according to a friend of mine
"Do you have any iced tea that isn't sweetened," Bob asked, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a paper napkin. (Yes, we'd been given napkins.) The waiter shook his head. "Sweet tea only," he said.
"Honey," Truman drawled, fanning himself with the laminated single-sheet menu, "I'm from the South, but this place is a little too sultry even for me. And can you turn on a little music, too? It's as solemn as King Tutankhamun's tomb in here, and just as hot."
The air conditioning was on the fritz, we discovered later, and there never was any music. Truman kept fanning himself with a menu, like a Southern matron during a long church service. Meanwhile, instead of refilling our water glassses from a pitcher, the server picked up the glasses individually, took them to the kitchen and returned with them — one at a time — filled to the brim.
"Don't you have a pitcher back there in the kitchen?" Truman asked the waiter. "You could fill that ol' thing up with ice and water and just leave it here with us."
The teenager looked at us blankly and dashed off. Bob shook his head. "This isn't a restaurant," he said and sighed. "It's a comedy sketch."
Derbas is a perfectionist — maybe too much of a perfectionist. A friend of mine who ate at the Village a couple of weeks after it opened was told that he couldn't have the tabbouleh salad because "the chef decided that it wasn't good enough to be served."
Luckily, our meals were very good. Truman put down his fan long enough to eat a terrific combo of grilled meats skewered on kebabs: beef, chicken and kofte. The latter is the meatball-like "pounded" meat dish called koofteh or kufteh in Persian recipes; it came served on a fragrant mound of basmati rice that was steamed with parsley, onion, garlic, rosemary, allspice and cardamom.
"Hand me some of that Lebanese sauce," Truman snapped at Deb, referring to a little dish of cool yogurt sauce.
"The Greeks call this tsatsiki sauce," I told Truman. "Although this version doesn't have cucumber in it."
"I don't care if it has grape jelly in it," he said. "I just need something creamy and cold to dip my meat into."
Bob had wanted stuffed grape leaves (the Village offers a meatless version), but Derbas was out of them that night. Bob instead shared a really excellent, creamy hummus and that silky roasted eggplant dip, baba ghanoush, with Deb and me. Deb ate the falafel and was delighted that the fried chickpea-batter patties looked like little doughnuts. "The cook sticks his fingers through them," the server explained. The batter was made with lots of fresh cilantro, so the patties were a vibrant green. "They're delicious," Deb said.
I had the kofte dinner, served over rice, and thought it was excellent. We all greedily dipped the pita (paper-thin triangles of flat bread) into the dips, or we folded hunks of grilled meat into the soft sheaths of bread and dunked them into the yogurt sauce. "It's all delicious and perfectly seasoned," Deb said. "But where are those voices coming from?"
"We sat still until we heard the sounds of ghostly voices and laughter wafting through the wall that separates the Village from the more boisterous venue next door, Hikari Japanese Steakhouse. "It sounds like everyone over there is having a good time," Bob said, pouting.
"Of course, they are," Truman answered. "Someone's getting a shrimp thrown at them at this very minute. I'm going to ask our server to throw a falafel in my mouth."
We walked out of the dining room sweaty but well fed. "The place needs a little work," Truman said. "Maybe a lot of work."
On my next visit, this time accompanied by Carol Ann, the air conditioning was working in the dining room, but there were only a couple of occupied tables. Sitting at one of them was Derbas' business partner, Hanif Lakhani. He seemed to be enjoying his meal a lot, as were the elderly couple in an adjoining booth.
"Look at that woman," Carol Ann whispered, nodding her head in the direction of the woman. "That's what Nicole Kidman will look like when she's 70."
"Not if there's still Botox," I said, looking at the limited choices on the laminated menu. Did I dare order something as simple as a gyro sandwich? Yes, and it was delicious. Carol Ann liked the description of the grilled-chicken kebabs, marinated in garlic, olive oil, basil and cilantro. We had some falafel, too.
"What used to be here?" Carol Ann asked. "The carpeting is hideous, but the molding is kind of elegant. So are the light fixtures."
Before Derbas opened the Village last month, his dining room had been occupied by the fancy French La Mediterranee restaurant and, after that, the much less glamorous La Mesa Mexican Restaurant. Those two restaurants also served liquor, which Derbas doesn't and won't: He's an observant Muslim.
Derbas is operating his restaurant his way, learning what his customers want (including the little things, such as napkins and cold water) as he builds his clientele and his understanding of the restaurant trade. It's not the easy way, but Derbas seems to be enjoying himself and pleasing his customers. Which is really what this business is all about.