The Kemper Museum's Café Sebastienne takes artistic license.

Night Gallery 

The Kemper Museum's Café Sebastienne takes artistic license.

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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.

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