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.
But the kitchen more than compensated for the lack of visual glamour by turning out some very spectacular meals. Even more alluring were the prices $16.95 for lobster-tail thermidor? that made it easy to overlook the mass of artificial flowers and the erratic service. There was only one waitress working the dining room on the night I dined with Robert and Cindy, and to her credit, she never lost her cool. She had to juggle a lot of customers that night and a lot of dishes, too.
Cindy and Robert had nearly ruined their appetites on the starters, but I convinced them to indulge in one of Café Casbah's insanely decadent cream soups. Robert ordered chef Movahed's famous seafood bisque, a cup of thick cream and seafood purée loaded with scallops, prawns, lobster, crabmeat and cod. He was overwhelmed. Cindy, who loves hot soup on a frigid night, got all warm and fuzzy with Café Casbah's signature cream of almond soup, which was delectable. It sounds sweeter than it is, but it's still so rich that two sips are head-spinning.
The seemingly extensive Café Casbah menu includes seven beef selections, six veal or lamb choices, eight chicken dishes, and no fewer than 26 entrées under the "seafood" heading. On closer inspection, many of these dishes are variations on the same theme: the pale-amber lobster sauce blanketing the chicken Casbah is the same sauce used with the filet mignon Casbah, the rack of lamb Casbah and the shrimp Casbah. And so on. There's a beef Oscar, a veal Oscar, a salmon Oscar and a chicken Oscar.
But why quibble? The lobster sauce is luscious, and I lustily ate every bite of my chicken Casbah and everything else on the plate: carrots cooked in rosewater, a mound of rice and a few crispy slivers of fried zucchini.
Cindy swore that she had never seen "chateaubriand for one" on any menu until Café Casbah. The dish, named for the 19th-century French statesman, is typically a thick center cut of tenderloin for two, grilled and served with béarnaise sauce. She was eager to see Movahed's version. It was a gorgeously tender slab of beef that dripped with a delicious burgundy reduction rather than the traditional béarnaise. Cindy loved it. Robert was somewhat less enthusiastic about his paella, which was chock-full o' seafood and topped with bits of beef tenderloin that had been grilled until they had nearly turned to charcoal.
In keeping with its old-fashioned Continental style, Café Casbah offers two desserts rarely seen on local menus, bananas Foster and cherries Romanoff. The Casbah's interpretation of the former dish is not in the classic style of the New Orleans innovation that's usually flambéed tableside with sliced bananas caramelized in rum, brown sugar and banana liqueur. The version here arrives at the table as one messy and noncaramelized dish that has more in common with a Midwestern banana split.
I had some reservations about taking my stylish friend Marilyn to Café Casbah, because she's kind of a food snob. But she was all for the experience and got plenty of attention from the other diners in the room when she tossed off her fur coat and grandly sat at the table that she wanted instead of the less attractive table where the hostess had tried to lead us. "I mean, really, darling," Marilyn said, dismissing the hostess.
But attitude is everything, and Marilyn soon had the servers (two worked the room on this night) fussing over her as if she were the Queen of Sheba. To my amazement, she thought her dinner was worthy of royalty, from the exquisite cream of artichoke soup that she finally had to push in my direction ("It's so rich that if I take one more sip, I won't be able to eat anything else") to the cold and crispy house salad. "It's served on a chilled plate," she noted approvingly.
I goaded her into ordering lobster tail, served thermidor-style. The Café Casbah version of thermidor has little to do with the traditional preparation: chopping the lobster tail meat, combining it with béchamel sauce, wine and shallots and sprinkling it with Parmesan. Movahed serves his sumptuously meaty lobster chopped and flavored with a white-wine cream sauce and his signature garlic butter and fresh herbs. "It's very tender and succulent," Marilyn said. "I like it better without the cheese."
There's no pâté de foie gras in Café Casbah's interpretation of beef Wellington, but it's a tasty number anyway: two well-done filets stacked on top of each other and baked in a puffy pastry shell, slathered with garlic-butter sauce. It wasn't exactly what I expected, but it was a very sexy dish.
And I didn't feel cheap the next morn- ing. Just a couple of pounds heavier.