Paris, á la Prairie

The stylish MelBee’s (see review) isn’t the only Johnson County restaurant to recently give a fashion makeover to a once-dowdy location (in MelBee’s case, an old appliance store). Farther south, just off Metcalf, the strip-mall home of the failed Semolina International Pasta Restaurant (7070 West 105th) is getting a haute couture French look from interior designer Dawn Sinisgalli so that restaurateur Patrick Quillec (Hannah Bistro Café, Café Provence) can start serving escargot, cassoulet and cheeseburgers at the new Café Paris Brasserie & Bar, opening this week.

When they took possession of the place, Sinisgalli, Quillec and his staff found that Semolina had been left in situ. “There was still food on the tables and espresso in the cappuccino machine,” says Robbie McGowan, who moves over from Café Provence to become general manager for the new restaurant.

Quillec was happy to get some of the leftovers, such as the tables, chairs, wooden blinds, kitchen equipment and upholstered booths. But out went the giant colanders with the papier-mâché vegetables, the bad artwork and the steel bar area. In keeping with the tradition of famous French cafes like Deux Magots or Café Lipp (a favorite of Ernest Hemingway), Quillec covered the new bar in mahogany and granite. He also hung giant mirrors or mirrored tile on the walls to better reflect the wine-colored velvet curtains, white table linens and cobalt water bottles filled with fresh flowers.

Another restaurant had also closed in the neighborhood, offering Quillec even more choice pickings: expertly trained servers. “When Houston’s closed at 95th and Metcalf,” McGowan says, “we put the word out we were interested in those servers right away. And we’ve hired quite a few. They’re very experienced, very polished.”

Café Paris will be the third in Quillec’s rapidly expanding empire. After he left the old Omni Hotel downtown to open Hannah Bistro in 1998, Quillec turned around and opened Café Provence three years later. He’s also scouting locations for a French bakery and an Italian restaurant.

Quillec’s brother-in-law, Max Millier, will oversee the kitchen at Café Paris. He’ll mix traditional French bistro fare with a few American favorites, such as the aforementioned cheeseburgers and macaroni and cheese. One French tradition, however, will remain unchanged: smoking. Quillec will let diners light up on the north side of the bar and in the three booths alongside it. French Gauloises will be permitted, but cigars are strictly pas bienvenue.

Beginning June 2, Café Paris will offer a menu of Sunday brunch items. On the other side of State Line, the cozy Blue Bird Bistro has already started its excellent Sunday brunches. I celebrated Mother’s Day there with my favorite surrogate mother, Marilyn, who went mad for the house-cured salmon flavored with orange and cilantro and a chilled soup of fresh melon and kiwi with coconut milk that not only tasted delicious but also matched her outfit.

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