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.
Take, for example, the recent Friday night when I dined with my friend Marilyn. I was in a zen state, inspired by a cheesy frico -- Maloney's version of the Friulian snack made with melted cheese, caramelized onions and pomegranate seeds -- and a cup of the perfect autumn soup, a meaty broth filled with spicy chorizo and fat borlotti beans (which our waitress insisted were bordello beans). Suddenly, a strange woman with excessively large teeth walked past our table and grimaced.
"Do you know that horrible woman?" Marilyn asked as she nibbled on a chewy bit of frico.
I seemed to remember insulting her once. Ditto for the sour stooped dowager -- Nosferatu in Chanel -- who, a few minutes later, glared at us from the enclosed atrium on the other side of the glass wall. Marilyn refused to look up from her superb rock shrimp and avocado salad to stare back at the woman. "Why ruin my appetite?" she whispered. Smart thinking, I thought, then snagged a couple of the shrimp, which were smartly dressed in a creamy pico de gallo. "This isn't a salad," insisted Marilyn. "It's a complete meal."
True enough. The salads and appetizers on the café's evening menu are generous enough to pass themselves off as main courses. Marilyn had barely nibbled her way through half of the shrimp salad before suggesting that we share a dinner. Looking up at the Botero canvas, I quickly agreed. We split Maloney's favorite cut of beef, a tender (but slightly fatty) ribeye slathered with a discreetly seasoned Gorgonzola butter. Unfortunately, it was sided by a wedge of undercooked potato-fig gratin.
Not that I cared. Potatoes I can live without. Dessert, no. And for that, pastry chef Janet Ross is another one of the café's artful forgery experts. "She stole Susan Welling's bread pudding," Maloney says, "and Bonnie Winston's carrot cake." The fluffy, warm square of moist bread pudding was well worth stealing and would have been pretty enough to paint, had it stayed on the plate long enough.
Twenty-four hours later, I was back in the dining room on the night of the mash note and the ravenous friend. This time I was joined by Mike, Roger and Bob, who each had a different reaction to the room, the cuisine and the other patrons. Mike and Roger were mostly charmed by it all, but Bob loathed our server and nitpicked his way through each course.
We all loved the large, stylish salads -- particularly Roger's jumble of curly frisée, candied walnuts, succulent pears and blue cheese. But Bob whined that the tiny bay scallops heaped on a biscuit for his beautifully presented appetizer tasted "sandy." I found them perfectly fine. That was also the night of the lobster ravioli appetizer in a lovely roasted tomato sauce, which I shared with my companions. I kept a good portion of it for myself, though, which turned out to be prescient.
As soon as my dinner -- braised elk osso buco on butternut squash risotto -- arrived, so did the hungry friend, who gobbled up half of it and all the broccolini on the plate. Ah, but the elk, rich and gamy and surprisingly juicy, deserved to be shared. So did the plump, tender seared scallops that Roger had ordered (Maloney says it's the most requested dinner entrée), perched on a salad of cauliflower and spinach splashed with a smoked-bacon vinaigrette.
Bob grumbled at the ribeye's fattiness but ate nearly every bite, though he pointedly ignored "that so-called potato." But Mike's pan-seared Canadian walleye pike, a flaky slab of fish drenched in a cider and Calvados cream sauce, was the real star of the evening.
Until, that is, we encountered more fantastic forgeries -- the carrot cake blanketed in cream-cheese icing; an apple-and-cranberry crisp; and Maloney's signature dessert, the warm chocolate budino (the Italian term for American pudding), which is something closer to a fluffy fudge, all swathed in whipped cream. In fact, Café Sebastienne's desserts are much prettier and more sensual than the Wayne Thiebaud painting ("Cakes & Pies") on display in the museum's main gallery. They prove that life should never merely imitate art when it can, instead, surpass it.