The Kemper Museum's Café Sebastienne takes artistic license.

Night Gallery 

The Kemper Museum's Café Sebastienne takes artistic license.

If I eat one more chocolate dessert, my face is going to look like one of the balloon-head figures in a Fernando Botero painting. I once read an interview in which the Colombian-born artist recalled being so poor that he survived by eating "painter's soup" -- a cheap concoction of chicken innards, chopped onion and water. Botero said it rarely cost more than a dime. Sounds dreadful, but it may be the perfect diet for me.

Alas, painter's soup has yet to be listed on the menu of Café Sebastienne at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, but a canvas created in honor of Botero's distinctive work is there among the 110 oil paintings of various sizes, shapes and styles -- all by American artist Frederick James Brown -- mounted on the seven angular walls of the tiny restaurant.

The Brown paintings make up an installation called The History of Art, commissioned for Café Sebastienne back in the very early days of the 10-year-old museum. (The restaurant is named for Brown's young daughter, whose rendering hangs on the front wall, painted in the style of Mary Cassatt.) Back in those days, the "café" was basically a culinary afterthought.

"When the restaurant first opened, the food wasn't really more than sandwiches and salads, brought in by the staff of the restaurant Venue," says Jennifer Maloney, Café Sebastienne's longtime chef. "When Venue ended, so did the sandwiches and salads."

The Kemper's next outside food vendor was the Myron Green Company (now known as Treat America), which hired Maloney -- a veteran of Club 427, Milano and Grand Street -- to provide food for Café Sebastienne in 1995. It was best-known as a popular lunch spot, and Maloney later added Friday-night dinners. When the museum finally expanded the closet-sized kitchen in 2000, the Kemper ended the management contract with Myron Green and took over control of Café Sebastienne. Or, more accurately, officially handed control to Maloney.

Because of her larger-than-life personality and culinary creativity, Maloney is as integral to Café Sebastienne's public identity as the Brown paintings, the sculptural white Stefan Lindfor chairs and the black-clad waiters who are often artists themselves, even if they look too healthy to be surviving on painter's soup.

Maybe they were permitted to taste the rich broccoli-cheese soup du jour on the Saturday night that I felt, uncomfortably, as if the balloon-faced man was staring down at me while I lustily enjoyed an appetizer of puffy ravioli stuffed with lobster.

Adding to the creepiness was one loopy busboy who looked as if he'd been dipping into absinthe like van Gogh or Gauguin (both of whom also have canvas tributes in the dining room). Or maybe there was a splash of absinthe in the ravioli? After all, a dinner that started smoothly took an unexpectedly bizarre turn. The busboy and our self-promoting server were only two ingredients in an evening of artistic weirdness. There was also the friend who casually stopped by our table, announced she was starving and proceeded to devour half of my dinner. And there was the "mash note" slipped to me from an old pal who enjoyed the practical joke enormously from the other side of the dining room.

And don't even get me started on the lady with the enormous teased hairdo and pink sweatsuit sitting under a surrealistic painting that wasn't anywhere near as surreal as she was.

It's the patrons that represent the biggest difference between Café Sebastienne during its lunchtime incarnation -- a sunny, quiet and demure setting -- and its more Dadaesque nighttime personality. Maloney serves dinner only on Friday and Saturday nights and, unlike her seasonal lunch menu, offers a limited but imaginative choice of starters and entrées that change weekly. But the mood in the dining room, perhaps influenced by all of those artistic styles on the walls, changes even more frequently.

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