Plenty of younger restaurants haven't aged as well -- Fedora comes to mind, as does Benton's Steak & Chop House. Those places could use a little cosmetic surgery -- or something much more drastic, as was the case with the Northland's ten-year-old Paradise Grill. It's had a dramatic facelift and a personality transplant.
The freestanding building was gutted for much of the summer and eventually lost its name and its identity (noisy, crowded, plebeian menu, flashy décor). It reopened on September 14 as the sixth member of PB&J's glamorous Yia Yia's sisterhood, the first of which was born at 119th and Roe in Leawood. If the old Paradise Grill was a suburban soccer mom, this new incarnation is the Stepford wife: dark, mysterious and seductive, but domestic enough to boast cosmopolitan cooking and spotless bathrooms.
It might be scary if the female servers were gorgeous automatons, but they're not. In fact, the distaff members of the wait team are funny and perky in a wholesome Midwestern way. The waiters, on the other hand, clearly have been hired on the basis of good cheekbones, narrow waists and artfully gelled hair. They're not only good-looking, but smart, too! At one meal, our server was a former construction worker who also worked part-time for the Dennis Moore campaign.
Ben was an excellent waiter as well, and he listened patiently to my barrage of questions. He even smiled when I rolled my eyes at that night's pasta "special," a combination of cavatappi noodles in a cumin-citrus broth drizzled with a chipolte-lime cream sauce. "I am so bored with that over-the-top fusion-cuisine bullshit," I snapped, stopping Ben before he could defend the chef (not executive chef D.J. Nagle, who was off that night) and the motley collection of flavors.
"That's a throwback to the old menu," Bill Crooks, co-owner of the PB&J restaurant empire, told me later. And I'm happy to report that the offerings on the actual menu (which differs slightly from the Johnson County Yia Yia's) are more straightforward. That's how Crooks wants them. "I know who put it on that night," Crooks said when I dissed the polyglot pasta dish, "and I'll kill him!"
Murder? No, just tell the kitchen crew not to let their cute black berets go to their egos: They're cooks, not Picassos of the spice cabinet. A little artistry goes a long way, and at the new Yia Yia's, even the butter -- cut into thin triangles, splashed with cilantro oil and sprinkled with porcini mushroom dust -- becomes a canvas.
"Could I get some plain butter?" asked my cilantro-hating friend Jeanne, who had found the idea of a stylish, upscale restaurant in North Kansas City to be "unfathomable."
"I used to live in the Northland, back when the Gold Buffet was the apex of sophistication," she said.
Earlier, standing in the tiny lobby as we waited for a table (the place was packed), I had pointed out to her that the crowd was pretty high-toned, sporting lots of expensive leather coats and tasteful jewelry. "They look just like the customers out in Overland Park," I said.