Until my first visit to the three-month-old Rockrose Grill & Bar in Shawnee, I'd never heard of the five Toubia brothers of Wichita. How was I supposed to know that the Toubia clan was culinary royalty in the "Air Capital of the World"?
My friend Bette, who lives in Wichita, set me straight. "It's a restaurant dynasty here that was started by the late Antoine Toubia, who was originally from Lebanon," Bette told me. She has followed the Toubia family's fortunes since Antoine opened his first restaurant, the Olive Tree Bistro. It was so successful that the Toubia family went on to open restaurants based on other concepts, including the Piccadilly Grill and Chelsea's. Antoine Toubia died of cancer in 1996, leaving the empire to his five sons and two daughters. "The sons and the daughters fought, and the girls wound up with the restaurants," Bette said.
The disagreement among the siblings was, according to The Wichita Eagle, "a very public split." Nathan Toubia tells me the brothers filed a lawsuit but eventually settled it out of court. Since they've moved to Kansas City, Antoine Toubia's sons — in addition to Nathan, there are Ryan, Andrew, Tony and Jason — prefer not to talk about "that family deal." They've apparently moved on; after looking at several locations for a combination saloon and restaurant where they could serve traditional pub fare and Middle Eastern dishes, they settled on a spacious building in a Johnson County strip mall called Shawnee Crossing. Last July, four of the Toubia brothers opened Rockrose Grill & Bar. (The fifth, Jason, is one of the partners but also operates a computer business.)
Never heard of a rockrose? Neither had I until Ryan told me it's a five-petaled flower that grows wild in Lebanon. The five petals, he said, represent the five brothers. (Also known by the Latin name cistus incanus creticus, the flower has a biblical connection, too. The plant exudes a sticky resin — it reportedly has healing powers — that's called the Balm of Gilead in the Book of Jeremiah. Another source refers to the plant as the myrrh flower with references that date back to Genesis. I wouldn't have been a bit surprised to have opened the menu and seen fatted calf and manna listed as daily specials.) Ryan sticks with the five-brother explanation, and so do his darling waitresses, who are as young and perky as sorority sisters — which is why another friend loves the place. "It's like eating in the dining room of the Kappa Kappa Gamma house," he says.
I wouldn't go that far, but compared with some of their slack-jawed Johnson County contemporaries, these young ladies seem almost as refined as the waitstaff at The American. Nonetheless, Rockrose Grill & Bar has much more in common with a suburban sports bar than with a five-star restaurant. One side of the building is a noisy bar area with tile floors and wall-mounted TVs tuned to sports channels; the other, with polished wood floors and brass railings, is devoted to dining (with a few soundless screens for patrons who have trouble talking to their partners).
It's the food, not the cold beer and ESPN, that should be driving business to this balmy bistro. There's a reason that the Toubia brothers call their place a Grill & Bar instead of vice versa. They opened for business with quite a few Middle Eastern dishes that no one ordered; after dropping a few of those items, chef Nathan Toubia discovered that he was selling more kibbi (fried meatballs stuffed with pine nuts and onion), roasted-red-pepper hummus and fattouch salad than ever before. Go figure.
They were out of kibbi (as well as the beef ravioli and lemon mousse) on the night of my first visit. Nathan, the kibbi king, had been away for a few days. I forgave him after Carol Ann, Deb and I enjoyed an excellent red-pepper hummus, and Nathan's spin on bruschetta: slices of toasted baguette topped with squares of salty, white halloumi cheese (a Cyprus delicacy often made with goat's milk, though our waitress wasn't sure in this case), sided with a bowl of chopped tomato, basil and onion that we could spoon on. It wasn't until the next course, when I was nibbling on my fattouch — a mixed green salad in a sumac vinaigrette — that I realized the background music consisted of hits from the 1980s: "Rock the Casbah" and "Talking in Your Sleep." I picked up a spoon and looked at my reflection to make sure I didn't still have a mullet.
Happily, our dinners arrived to distract me from that thought. Deb had ordered the fish-and-chips dinner; having lived in chip-loving Australia for many years, she's a connoisseur of this dish — and was thrilled with the white, flaky cod in a beer batter. Carol Ann liked her chicken moutarde, but I wasn't so crazy about this plump chicken breast dripping with herb butter and a splash of brown mustard sauce, sided with one of those dreary "vegetable medley" assemblages that come off as an upscale Lean Cuisine. My meal was far superior: a thick sweet-pepper-and-bacon burger served on focaccia with a pile of house-made potato chips.
Impressively, Nathan makes his own desserts — even the ice cream — but we were all disappointed by the flourless chocolate whatever-it-was that looked like a flattened brownie, served far too cold with a tiny dollop of jammy cherry-Frangelico sauce.
Except for that dull finale, our meal had been enjoyable, so for the next visit, I brought along harder-to-please Bob, who detests strip-mall restaurants in Johnson County. "What kind of place is this?" he asked with a grimace when we walked in. He did like our server, another adorable college type, and only slightly rolled his eyes at our Fried Rings appetizer: a soup cup filled with tiny little fried calamari rings, battered onion straws and flaccid jalapeño strips. "Taste, one — visuals, zero," he sniffed.
His mood improved with the wood-fired Kansas City strip, an inexpensive 12-ounce cut decently prepared and served alongside real garlic mashed potatoes. Alas, a peppercorn cream sauce served with the beef was as thin and runny as salad dressing.
I could have eaten a couple of bowls of Nathan's carbonara. Made with mushrooms but without eggs, it was a version that my Sicilian grandmother wouldn't have recognized. But the fusilli in a silky cream sauce, dotted with bacon and green peas, was excellent.
And the desserts this time were first-rate. Bob had the cheesecake du jour, made with chocolate and lots of peanut butter. I'm not exactly an ice-cream devotee, but Nathan's house-made toasted-coconut confection was extraordinary.
The dining room was full on both of my visits, so perhaps the Toubia brothers have laid the foundation for a new restaurant empire in Kansas City.