By the time this pretty young server had made her confession, her sins were all too evident. And although our meal hadn't been spoiled by her foibles -- she had a sparkling sense of humor that made up for a lot -- her lackadaisical style was a metaphor for the difference between the "new," suburban Hannah Bistro (known as Café Paris until a year ago) and the original restaurant of the same name. (That restaurant's space, a former Pizza Hut, is now a Qdoba Mexican Grill on 39th Street.) Something magical got lost in translation when French-born chef and restaurateur Patrick Quillec moved the concept that had been so successful in midtown out to a strip center in Johnson County.
It isn't the food. If anything, the dishes prepared by recently imported chef Jeff Scott is even better than the fare served at the old 39th Street location. And although my cynical friend Ned says the predominantly purple décor at this uptown Hannah Bistro looks like a funeral parlor (it's a holdover from the Café Paris concept), I think it's far closer in spirit to an actual Parisian café than the rehabbed Pizza Hut was.
When Quillec and his original partner, the late Brian Whittaker, opened the original Hannah Bistro Café in 1998, the offbeat menu -- traditional French bistro fare combined with dishes influenced by Asian and Arabic culinary traditions -- and excellent service quickly put the place on the map. But what clicked in that location didn't travel well: A Lee's Summit version of the restaurant flopped, despite a talented chef and savvy servers. When the 39th Street Hannah Bistro closed last year (after a Shakespearean battle for control by the investors), Quillec simply took the name and the recipes with him and gave the struggling Café Paris a more recognizable identity.
What seems to have been misplaced in the move, along with a more polished serving staff, is the old restaurant's joie de vivre. My friend Karen, a Hannah's devotee, noticed the change immediately. "The food was delicious, as always," she said. "But the diversity of the clientele was totally different. Instead of a mix of young and old, black and white, gay and straight, wealthy and poorer patrons, the customers were all middle-aged Caucasians. To say it didn't have the energy of the original Hannah's would be an understatement."
That brings us back to my dinner with Ned and the self-proclaimed World's Worst Waitress. Quillec only recently opened the restaurant on Sundays, and the place was practically empty. Which may have been a good thing.
"I'm not really a waitress, you see," said the WWW after bringing Ned a glass of Ferrari Fume Blanc (which he'd ordered directly from the bartender, because our server said she "didn't really understand the wine list"). "I'm a friend of Patrick's daughter, and I have another day job. I work here during the summers."
Ned, who has been a waiter for more than 40 years, smiled indulgently, then waved her away. "She's a precious child, so you can't hate her, even if she did commit three service mistakes in the first 10 minutes."
The first of those mistakes was her initial greeting: "So do you guys know what you want for dinner?" It wasn't rude, just annoying.
As it turned out, us guys knew exactly what we wanted after a quick look at the menu. And here's when erreur numéro deux took place. "I'll have the osso buco," Ned said.
"Oh, we don't have that anymore," she said. "Patrick took it off the menu."
I asked why it was still listed, and she shrugged. "We haven't gotten the new menus yet."
When I was a server, I always announced which dishes were missing-in-action at the very beginning of my performance, to avoid this sort of disappointment. And where, for God's sake, was the new menu?
"We're a little late in getting out the summer menu," Quillec later explained sheepishly. "When Jeff joined us, we decided to do a lot of revisions."
The World's Worst Waitress didn't know that, however, and her flat reading of the night's "special" (she had to sneak a peek at her cheat sheet) was so discombobulated that when she walked away, I still had no idea whether the special was pork, fish or hippopotamus. So after we dined on Quillec's signature salads -- including a wonderful combination of soft, butter-lettuce leaves and tart vinaigrette topped with a ball of fried goat cheese -- I encouraged Ned to order one of Quillec's newer dishes that I adored. For the modestly priced Chinese Dry Rub Flat Iron Steak, Quillec arranges dainty slices of juicy, grilled beef around a mound of Swiss chard sautéed with salty pancetta. It's not as sumptuously tender and succulent as the pricey 8-ounce filet or butter-drenched strip loin served with steak frites, but it's delicately seasoned and deliciously innovative.
Another favorite from the spring menu was getting a summer makeover, so I ordered the pork medallions crusted in crushed almonds (for the new version, Quillec replaces the almonds with walnuts) and enjoyed every crunchy, luscious bite. We didn't stay for dessert or espresso, because the WWW was getting on Ned's nerves. "We had to beg for bread and a pepper mill," he griped, "but she filled water glasses every 2 minutes."
You can imagine my disappointment when I returned to Hannah's the following night and found her there again. She promptly seated Bob, Loring and me in her station. In a restaurant as intimate as Hannah's, there's no tactful way of saying, "Do you mind if another server takes this table, cheri?" It did cross my mind, but that night, WWW was on her best behavior, actually proving herself to be nimble, attentive and professional.
"She's not the World's Worst Waitress," Bob said as he spooned a dab of startlingly salty olive tapenade on a crostini. "I've had much worse service. The girl at the Machine Shed comes to mind."
Other, more immediate concerns were on dairy-allergic Loring's mind. She scowled at the goat-cheese ratatouille nestled among the tapenade and citrusy white-truffle hummus on the Hannah's Dip plate. She nibbled the tapenade and announced that it was too salty.
She was much happier with her dinner. The marinated duck swimming in ginger-blueberry coulis was slightly dry, but that was how she preferred it, she said. This dish was also due for a seasonal update, along with the plate of pink, tissue-thin slices of beef carpaccio that Bob chose as his supper. "It's just too hot to eat anything heavy," he explained.
The heat didn't bother me one bit, so I ordered Quillec's most famous dish -- created, he has said, for Amy Carter's wedding. It's an artfully grilled hunk of pink salmon "crusted" with a paste of crunchy and vibrantly green crushed pistachios and served on a bed of creamy risotto. It's sensually soft inside, delicately crispy on the surface. No wonder it never has left the Hannah Bistro repertoire.
Once again we passed on desserts, but only because they all contained some dairy ingredient. (We never would have eaten a lovely crème brûlée right in front of Loring, no matter how tempting the idea.) Frankly, we were all too full to eat another bite.
And when the bill arrived, I guiltily left our server a nice big tip. After all, I didn't want her to think I was, as they say in France, le plus mauvais client de world -- the World's Worst Customer.