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.)
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.