Dec 24, 2010

A Biased Review of Café Sebastienne

Restaurant: Café Sebastienne
Food: Contemporary American
Service: Competent yet relaxed
Atmosphere: A cozy buzz... dinner among art.
Price: Starters $9-$14, Entrees $18-$30
Rating: Three Napkins

It’s nearly impossible to objectively review the restaurant that catered your wedding reception. So know, from the beginning, my review of Café Sebastienne is tainted with puppy love sentiment.

On September 15, 2007, this restaurant located in the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art laid out for our guests and us a fine spread that, quite frankly, I don’t remember much. I was beaming with an ear-to-ear grin and paying special attention to greet as many of our friends and loved ones as possible, who had been so kind to spend their evening celebrating our marriage. Elizabeth, I remember, inhaled her food with double take-inducing speed, and rushed me to finish mine, feeling obligated to play the gracious hosts. And so I did.

So it was with great zeal that we made our recent reservation, having received a gift card to the restaurant.

It was colder than freezing outside but magically warm inside the narrow restaurant, whose walls are covered top-top-bottom with paintings of all sorts. The mélange of vibrant canvases is an art lover’s fantasy and contributes to the hearty conversation taking place among the diners. Elizabeth and I were seated at a lovely, small table in the middle of the restaurant where we started with complimentary multi-grain rolls and a dollop of herb compound butter, alongside which sat a dish of Moroccan spiced olives. The spice tasted of cumin and turmeric – curry-like – and balanced out the briny saltiness of the olives. A lovely start.

The fried risotto balls sounded too good to miss, so we ordered those to go along with our spinach salad. They came four to a plate, which was covered with a vibrant red coating of fresh, slightly spicy marinara and a sprinkling of Parmesan. The spheres of risotto were a perfect breadcrumb shell protecting a soft, gooey, cheesy center of rice.

The spinach salad was a lesser success. I’d argue it was underdressed, but it was perfect for Elizabeth who considers an overdressed salad worthy of capital punishment. Its toppings of dried apricots seemed a little odd combined with poached egg on top. Apricot and egg would seem fine, almost breakfasty together normally, but on the earthy spinach salad, the egg lends meatiness--protein, overpowering the light vinaigrette and fruits. It just didn’t come together as well as conceptualized. All that said, we’re still talking a “B” salad, not a “D” or “F” by any means.

Salad now being sufficiently over-analyzed, I move on to the entrees. Elizabeth’s was a wonderfully seasonal and healthy vegetarian dish: spaghetti squash with kale, soft hunks of tangy, savory tomato and plump artichoke hearts. The small mountain of squash “pasta” gave the dish its richest component, against which the acid and salt from the other ingredients played nicely. It was tremendously satisfying to eat, not just for its superb flavor and texture but in knowing that it was, with the exception of its probable high butter content, quite healthy.

Not having the opportunity often, I ordered the duck, which I love for its indulgent fatty taste that always pairs so nicely with the fruit and berry sauces of the season. The chefs on this night were serving their duck with a syrupy, zesty orange glaze. Though my plate had an overabundance of the sauce which caused me to feel like I’d drunk a bottle of Karo corn syrup by the time I was done, it was tasty and an absolutely perfect pairing with the duck, making subtle any trace of gaminess it may have had.

Splitting hairs, I’d ask for the skin to be even crispier than it was. One can see from my pictures that it had certainly been cooked properly – scored and rendered until dark – but it stretched and pulled too much as I ate it. So this was, unfortunately, not quite my best experience with duck breast (Le Fou Frog is, so far).

The side of wild rice topped with custard was easily the most decadent side dish I’d ever eaten. One bite was enough. So was the next. And the next. I ended up eating the whole serving despite its unimaginable richness, which surprised me. I have to applaud the inventiveness but I’d guess this is a side that garners mixed reviews. Mine: gooood.

After all that, we were completely stuffed and dangerously cozy, so we each ordered an espresso, she devouring her tantalizing cube of natural brown sugar upon arrival, me admiring mine in concept but not in consumption.

In the end, though not a perfect meal, the setting and the cast of memories that surrounded us throughout the experience made for a magical evening and sparked eagerness to return soon. Café Sebastienne is a forgotten gem in our city, as is the museum itself. But be certain that on September 15th, for the rest of my life, I’ll think of it fondly. And I plan to return as a customer far more often than that.

Rating: Three Napkins

Cafe Sebastienne on Urbanspoon

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