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If the bowl hadn't been garnished with a corsage of fresh marigolds, I might have called it a hearty dish, but Johnson's food is always prettied up like a gift package. For example, even though the amuse-bouche (French for "mouth amusement," a bite-sized prelunch treat) that day was an incongruously common fried okra, the six tiny slices drifted on an orange slick of vinegary, spicy "buffalo sauce." It looked elegant, but it wasn't as good as Piccadilly Cafeteria's.
On another afternoon, when I shared lunch with my friends Tom and Zodie, that starter was a less-rustic creation: figs stuffed with Gorgonzola and pancetta. That day, Tom and Zodie both complained that the coffee wasn't particularly robust and wondered why the vegetarian-sounding Historic Herb Garden Sandwich was made with smoked turkey. It did seem odd, but then again, so did the crab cakes, hardly bigger than miniature marshmallows and packed with scalding chopped peppers.
Strangely enough, the jade-green, jalepeño beurre blanc that accompanied the sautéed pork loin that day was much less fiery, even mellow. And it was the most demure portion of pork loin I'd ever seen -- just a half-dozen or so dainty bites. For those of us with healthier appetites, a much more satisfying lunch is the juicy filet of steak splashed with wild-mushroom broth and served with a pile of violet Peruvian potatoes.
Tom and I were the only men in the main dining room, which is painted a vibrant red and decorated like a nineteenth-century salon. The space nearly vibrated with the buzz of animated conversation, and we eavesdropped on four plump women at the next table, who were heartbroken that Jacobson's department store was closing. "I practically cried!" shouted one.
"I wonder why," Zodie said, and shot the woman a withering look. "Look at how she dresses! She never shopped there," Zodie hissed before turning her attention to the house salad of mixed greens, sliced melon, dried leeks and roasted peppers, sprinkled with feta cheese and cracked pistachios.
But patrons do shop in the warren of artfully decorated display rooms downstairs at Webster House. Afterward, they carry their festive little white-and-burgundy sacks right into the dining room.
"They sell those fabulous Votivo scented candles," said my actor-friend David, who insisted on being treated to a thirtieth birthday lunch at the restaurant (and ate with gusto, despite a hangover). "You know, everyone is talking about the place."
David complained that having to lunch in the dark library was "social Siberia." He thought the room needed something more glamorous than the carved monkey statue at the bar (in a tricorn hat and satin breeches). "It needs a big stuffed fish on the wall," he said between bites of a slightly runny, eggy ginger crème brûlée.
But that would have made the room much too virile, I decided a few days later, as I sat by myself at the bar listening to an old Frances Langford record playing over the sound system and luxuriating in a wedge of chocolate gâteau. Crackly and chewy on the outside, soft and moist inside, the pastry was decked out like a Paul Gauguin painting: Lush, glistening raspberries and blackberries nestled against satiny chocolate, and a puff of freshly whipped cream rose at a jaunty angle on top. It was deftly ornamented with slivered almonds, and a sprig of fragrant mint lay by its side.