The apocryphal Persian king Shahryar had thousands of wives but never kept one longer than 24 hours. The morning after each wedding, according to the legend of the Arabian Nights, Shahryar had his new bride beheaded. By the afternoon, he'd found a new virgin to marry that night.
The bodies stopped piling up when Shahryar married Scheherazade, the daughter of his court vizier. Her ability to spin one exciting story after another kept her husband entranced — and her head firmly on her neck.
Chef and restaurateur Rashid Khalaf has had two wives, and he's a pretty good storyteller himself. A native of Jerusalem, Khalaf has lived most of his life in the United States. The former soccer-playing college student became a professional cook by taking kitchen jobs in many Middle Eastern restaurants in the area, including the old Athena on Broadway in the 1980s. That's where he learned how to prepare classic Greek cuisine from the venue's owners, Yannis and Suzi Vantzos. The Athena, which closed in 1994, was where I met Khalaf. He didn't teach me anything about cooking, but he did give me a full vocabulary of Arabic curse words, many of which were directed at me. (Apparently, I wasn't the easiest waiter to work with.)
Last year, Khalaf finally accomplished a dream that he'd spent at least 1,001 nights plotting: a Middle Eastern restaurant, coffee bar and retail store called Shahrazad. "It's named after the Persian queen," says Khalaf, who has turned a failed Quizno's location in south Overland Park into a cheery bistro. Surprisingly provocative Persian music videos play on a TV monitor mounted above a shiny cooler packed with imported beverages, all nonalcoholic. (Khalaf, like many of his customers, is a devout Muslim.)
My friend Carol Ann slugged down half a bottle of pomegranate-flavored Barbican one night over a meal of grilled lamb chops and a tart fatouch salad. The fruit-flavored malt beverage, a product of Dubai-based Aujan Industries, has a slightly beery note but not a drop of the devil's brew. "I think I'd rather have a cup of hot mint tea," she told our server halfway through the meal. "This drink doesn't make you woozy, just gassy."
I stuck with hot tea from the beginning (though there's a bottled sour-lemon soda served here that's delicious with baba ghanoush) and was glad for the mellowing influence it had on my mood. I needed the help — the Shahrazad Café's interior hasn't quite escaped its fast-food-joint past. The fluorescent lighting remains so brutal that every patron in the place appears ready to have a mug shot snapped. "Do yourself a favor," Carol Ann whispered to Khalaf. "Invest in a dimmer. It's a miracle worker."
Carol Ann's theory is that tasteful restaurant lighting is much more important in Johnson County than anywhere else in the metro. "If a woman is going to invest in botox and dermabrasion," she says, "she won't like sitting under lights that make her look like Aileen Wuornos."
For my part, I thought about borrowing a hijab to blot out some of the 1,001 lights. Some of Shahrazad's lovely, young female servers wear the traditional head scarves, and several of the customers I saw there on my three visits had them on as well. On the night that I dined with my friend Rhiannon, she said she felt conspicuous without one. I suggested that she cross the dining room and go into the retail side of the operation and see if she could buy one. She left for a minute and came back with a jar of pickles and a bag of Turkish coffee. "They were on sale," she said.