Painter John James Audubon, who frequently described his meals in his journals, was once so poor that he ate only apples and bread. (For protein there was, according to one source, the occasional "cold raccoon for breakfast.") The sculptor Louise Nevelson reportedly found sustenance in her struggling years by eating onions and drinking whiskey, when she was financially unable to prepare favorite dishes such as red cabbage and lamb.
The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art has a Nevelson sculpture in its permanent collection, and Jennifer Maloney, head chef at the museum's restaurant, has been known to cook with onions, red cabbage, lamb and apples. But don't expect raccoon at Café Sebastienne.
The chef has been at Sebastienne since 1995, the year after the midtown museum opened. The Maloney acquisition elevated the restaurant into something more than a stylish snack bar. In the beginning, the café's lunch basics, the salads and the sandwiches, were from Venue restaurant just off the Country Club Plaza. When Venue vanished, the museum signed a contract with Treat America, and that local food-service-management company hired Maloney to cook at Sebastienne. When the Treat America contract ended, the museum kept Maloney and said goodbye to outsourcing.
Maloney remains a good fit for this restaurant, where she began dinner service, on Friday and Saturday nights, in 2000. Maloney is married to a visual artist (painter Richard Van Cleave), and she takes her role as a culinary creative force very seriously. The artfully composed entrées at Café Sebastienne are often as eye-popping and attractive as some of the works hanging in the galleries.
Has the restaurant really changed that much since the last time The Pitch reviewed it, nine years ago? ("Night Gallery," November 18, 2004). It has. Maloney and her staff, including sous chef Janet Ross, have grown only more confident, and the dinner menu's very simplicity reflects that assurance. It has never been an elaborate affair, and today there are rarely more than six entrée choices (with one vegetarian item or a dish that can be prepared without meat) and as many starter options. When it's all this sturdy, you don't need more.
What you might require is a little more room. A recent Saturday-night starter of plump oysters, lightly breaded and flash-fried, practically swamped my plate, which wasn't small. To make room for another starter, an excellent platter of roasted-red-pepper hummus, my party was forced to set those bulky bivalves on the next table over.
I might have been tempted to do that even if someone had been sitting there, but the narrow, L-shaped room wasn't very busy that night. Some diners find this cozy room — lined from floor to ceiling with 110 oil paintings by the late Frederick James Brown — a bit claustrophobic. I don't. In fact, I prefer its intimacy to the adjoining atrium space (enclosed by a glass roof in 2000), with its hard, sleek floors and kentia palm trees. (It's the Kemper's answer to the Nelson's Rozzelle Court: visually arresting but hampered by punishing acoustics.)