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The smaller dining area was originally designed for lunching almost as an afterthought (the first tiny kitchen got a drastic remodel after Sebastienne proved to be far more popular than the Kemper's staff anticipated), and the room still has a clubhouse quality. It's also now a tribute to Brown, who died last May at age 67, and it deserves to be among his artistic legacies. The museum's co-founder, banker R. Crosby Kemper Jr., not only commissioned Brown to assemble the installation — called The History of Art and painted in the styles of 110 artists (Fernando Botero, Mary Cassatt, points between) — but also named the café for Brown's daughter, Sebastienne, whose portrait hangs in the dining room.
The room changes at night, when Maloney and company shift gears from lunchtime bustle to a sexy languor. The servers, veterans who know the menu and the small, dynamic wine list inside out, adjust as well, never letting you feel rushed.
That makes it easier to ask for bread, which I wish I didn't have to do here. It seems like such an obvious necessity, given how many of Maloney's creations turn on sauces or broths that demand greedy absorption. Foremost among those, for me, might be the buttery, vermouth-scented liquid at the bottom of a bowl heaped with steamed mussels. But I'd smuggle in a loaf of Wonder Bread for sopping before I'd give up a drop of Maloney's lyrical Sriracha-and-lobster sauce (drizzled over a flaky hunk of striped bass that Audubon might have written 10 pages about in his journal). And there's also the flannel-thick potato puree with the pan-roasted chicken. Maloney recently changed her standard chicken dish to that comforting, home-style recipe. It's delectably moist under a slightly crispy golden skin.
This same chicken is now on the Sunday brunch menu, too, where (like those fried oysters) it's slightly less costly. (Maloney likes to use up her fresh weekend ingredients before the restaurant's weekly downtime, Monday.) That Sunday meal includes smart renditions of what you'd expect: generous French toast, a substantial croque madame sandwich, an omelet du jour. I prefer Maloney's spin on eggs Benedict, in which a bright hollandaise complements a pair of delicate crab cakes. That's not a variation common to these parts, and she pulls it off deliciously.
During brunch hours, the atrium is dense with talk, conversations bouncing off the room's many hard surfaces and tidbits landing where the speakers probably prefer they didn't. I once overheard an entire dialogue from a table far across the room, and even I wish I hadn't. Still, on a sunny day, the light and the food are soothing enough to counter any cacophony.
At this brunch, you'll want dessert, especially if it's Maloney's signature chocolate budino — the bastard child of chocolate pudding and ganache. It's not to be missed at any meal, even if you've already downed a plate of warm, crumbly apple crisp (which comes topped with two scoops of candied-ginger ice cream). Both are musts, and both are — like almost every other dish from Maloney's kitchen — museum quality. Her art continues to appreciate.