That line probably got a big laugh from moviegoers back in the early 1950s. Unlike most of the other Warner Bros. cartoon stars, Pepé created by legendary animator Chuck Jones in 1945 was inspired by a real person, the sloe-eyed 1930s movie heartthrob Charles Boyer.
Monsieur Boyer played sexy thief Pepé Le Moko in the 1938 film Algiers, in which he made moon eyes at the young and stunning Hedy Lamarr. "Come with me to the Casbah" isn't actually in the movie, but it has become forever identified with both Boyer and his cartoon counterpart, Pepé Le Pew, as a seduction tool. "Come with me to the Casbah," spoken with a sultry French accent, is code for "let me take you away and ravish you." It still sounds pretty sexy. Even coming from a skunk.
One doesn't need an accent Français to whisk a potential lover off to Overland Park's Café Casbah, but a good sense of direction helps. The chatty waitress who answered the phone explained that the restaurant was at the corner of College Boulevard and Antioch "behind the Executive Cleaners." That turned out to be an important navigational tool. If you're whizzing along College Boulevard and blink, you'll miss the illuminated Café Casbah sign.
Iranian-born Mohsen Movahed opened Café Casbah in the spring of 1996 with a menu that he says hasn't changed once in 10 years. Movahed owner and chef at the 16-table restaurant describes his cuisine as Mediterranean, but I'd call it classic Continental fare. What other restaurant in Kansas City still serves beef Wellington; chateaubriand; veal sweetbreads in Madeira wine sauce; and duck cooked with honey, dates and walnuts?
Well, the jury's still out on the duck, because on two recent visits to the restaurant, it wasn't available. Neither was the stuffed-squid appetizer, which my friends Robert and Cindy lusted after on the chilly Wednesday night that we dined in the place. Our waitress a dead ringer for actress Mary Kay Place blurted out that the dish was almost never available. "I don't know why we keep it on the menu," she told us, shrugging her shoulders. "It's kind of a teaser, I guess."
Seduce me, please, but don't tease me when it comes to culinary foreplay. We settled instead on shrimp, escargot and dolmas, those bite-sized stuffed grape leaves. Movahed cooks with a light hand on the garlic press, which probably makes sense in the garlic-phobic suburbs. But I prefer a more pungent sauce smothering those ugly but tasty little snails. And if Movahed is going to list his sautéed shrimp appetizer as being cooked "with fresh herbs and garlic," there should be more than a hint of the brazen bulb.
The fat, stuffed grape leaves, packed with lamb and rice, were exceptional, but Cindy thought the escargot still had a tinny, "canned" taste that the parsley-and-butter sauce couldn't mask. "These could be mushrooms, for all I know," she said.
Robert and Cindy are adventurous diners, but they had never heard of Café Casbah until I suggested the place. It had been several years since I had eaten there, and I was sort of stunned that the décor hadn't changed since the day the joint opened. The walls were still a shade of raspberry sherbet, some of the banquettes needed to be reupholstered, and the linen-draped tables were topped with very practical and very dated paper place mats.