"I know this sounds corny," he said, perusing the wine list. "But if I close my eyes, this could be France."
Even with my eyes wide open, the little restaurant didn't feel like Missouri. To get to the second-floor dining rooms, we climbed up a long series of steps (there is a handicapped-accessible entrance as well from a street behind the restaurant) and through a red-painted door. Inside, a big square room has been painted the color of buttercream, and little tables are draped in linen and white butcher paper. It's an odd, boxy space, but the building is 150 years old and these rooms were once someone's home. The place evolved, over the decades, into a German bakery and a tea room, among other things.
Almost Vermeer-like in their simplicity, the two dining rooms and the tiny bar area, painted the color of tomato paste, have little in the way of decoration, aside from the hanging metal light fixtures (painted by Sparks' mother) and those lace curtains. But it's a sexy room.
"No," corrected John, "it's a cheeky room. It lends itself to some stimulating conversation."
But he really meant sexy conversation, because he launched into the story of his recent seduction of a beautiful woman even before the charcuterie plate ($9.50) arrived. It was amazing to watch him greedily devour homemade paté on crusty French bread, thin circles of imported ham, and meaty bites of cold sausage and never miss a beat in his storytelling. It reminded me of writer Guy Davenport's account of the first time John Adams, America's second president, traveled to France and had his first French dinner: "He found the food delicious, if unidentifiable, but blushed at the conversation (a lady asked him if his family had invented sex)."
I was ready to blush at John's story, but luckily a plate of dark little escargots arrived in a white-hot bowl, sizzling with garlic butter and herbs ($5.50 to $9.50, depending on size). The very fragrance of the garlic butter diverted the conversation, at least temporarily, from sex. Escargots, the French word for snails, are the classic Gallic example of turning something cold and nasty into something hot and sensuous. French chefs can do the same with brains and sweetbreads, which aren't on the Café Des Amis menu. But more popular dishes, such as a sautéed duck with a green peppercorn demi-glace ($17.50) or a chicken roasted with lemons and herbs ($14.50) also arrive, hot and sensuous from chef Emmanuel Langlade's pocket-size kitchen.
Langlade and partner Didier Combe (who looks like a young version of French film star Alain Delon) are both natives of Aix-en-Provence, although they didn't know each other while in their birthplace.
"We met working at a restaurant in Texas," said Combe, adding that Aix-en-Provence "is a big city by French standards, but by American standards, it's a village."
By American standards, Parkville might be a village, although it's fast becoming the newest restaurant mecca in the greater Kansas City area, thanks to several very good eating establishments. The three-month-old Café Des Amis, or "Cafe of the Friends," is named for the triumvirate of quiet Langlade, energetic Combe, and the sleek, black-clad Sparks, who worked in the film business in Los Angeles before returning home to become a restaurateur. She glides through the dining rooms like Audrey Hepburn's bohemian waif in Funny Girl and has a self-deprecating wit that's as tart as the mustard and cilantro vinaigrette sprinkled on the salad of fresh greens ($5).
The old French proverb "The torch of love is lit in the kitchen" is true. On a previous visit to Café Des Amis with my friend Julia, we shared a plate of imported cheeses and fresh fruit ($9.50) and a silky paté in the bar as we watched amorous couples at other tables gaze longingly into each other's eyes as they pounced hungrily on plates of creamy risotto with sautéed broccoli and fresh green asparagus ($16.50). We agreed it was a scene straight out of Tom Jones, where the act of passionate eating imitates, well, you know what.
Chef Langlade's food absolutely lit a torch of love for me: I was head over heels after the first bite of my succulent dinner of fresh salmon, baked with paper-thin slices of lemon, dill, and fennel ($16.50) in a buttery sauce fragrant with garlic and lemon. Served with a crusty square of gratin potatoes, it was extraordinarily delicious.
John, who had finally become bored talking about his own romantic escapades, had finished a glass of lusty Merlot and turned the subject to other French restaurants, past and present. We toasted to the French cafés and restaurants that have vanished, such as Le Jardin, La Tour En Rond, and Le Mediterranee.
The service is smooth here, but hardly formal; one waitress was wearing a T-shirt and jeans under her apron, which reflected the happily casual ambience of the place. No stuffy starched shirts and tuxedo pants for this staff; dining at Café Des Amis is like having supper in a provincial French village. No one was dressed up for dinner on either of my visits.
"This is Parkville, after all," said John, pushing away his plate after proclaiming his dinner of a crispy piece of lamb, perched artistically on a bed of shiitake mushrooms ($19.50) to be among the better French dinners he's had.
I felt like I was back in Paris when the desserts arrived. John ordered a thin, sugary crêpe filled with fresh berries and whipped cream ($6); I couldn't decide between the profiteroles ($6) or the featured dessert of the evening, a delicate flourless chocolate tart ($6), so I had both.
I selfishly kept the profiteroles -- airy puffs of pastry filled with vanilla-bean ice cream and splashed with a warm, fudgy chocolate sauce -- for myself. I did allow John to take a bite of the sugar-dusted chocolate tart, and his eyes almost glazed over.
"Superb! You know, I'd come back to this place if I thought I could find it again," he said. I tried to explain that the trip is very simple: barely 26 minutes from Midtown if the traffic isn't heavy. Just a hop, skip, and jump from the Broadway Bridge and, voilà, a taste of France.
"This place," he said solemnly, "is very emotionally satisfying. Very sexy and romantic. The question is this: What am I doing here with you?"
I laughed and proposed a toast to our new restaurant discovery with my coffee. It couldn't be anything much stronger: Café Des Amis is serving only French wine and beer -- and some potent espresso -- until it receives its liquor license later this summer. By that time, the restaurant's outdoor deck, shaded with big, old trees, should be filled with diners eager to have their "torch of love" ignited by the fare from Emmanuel Langlade's kitchen.
Contact Charles Ferruzza at 816-218-6925 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Café Des Amis 112 1/2 Main St., Parkville, Mo., 816-587-6767
Hours: Wed.-Sat. 11:30-2:30; Thurs.-Sun., 5-9:30 p.m.
FOOD: Four Stars
SERVICE: Three Stars
ATMOSPHERE: Four Stars
OVERALL: Four Stars