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Sunday, February 17

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I tried to like Café Selmarie. Really, I did. Maybe it is unfair to form so harsh an opinion after just one visit, but I have to say, I am not very excited about giving it a second chance.

Located in the heart of Lincoln Square, this bakery/brunch/lunch/dinner spot has the best of intentions -- cheery atmosphere, friendly staff, creative menu, adorable outside patio -- yet, for some reason, the sum of these parts did not add up to a positive experience for me. I had heard so many great things about this place, and while my meal was far, far from horrible, I left feeling disappointed, especially considering the amount of cash I dropped on dinner.

Walking into Café Selmarie, I was a bit disoriented; the space has undergone a couple of expansions and customers must walk through the front bakery/coffee shop area (and, I might add, past the aromatic, heavenly dessert case) to reach the back dining room. From there, we were immediately shown to a table next to a high window looking out at Lincoln Square. I will admit that at this point I was enchanted with my surroundings; sunny yellow walls, gorgeous photographs (the rotating art is done by local artists), tealight candles, a glimpse of the kitchen, and our window seat made for rather a picturesque setting.

I was not so enchanted with the menu, however; the items looked appetizing for sure, but for such a casual space, the prices were much higher than I had expected. Then again, the appetizers and entrees were impressive with a variety of unusual ingredients -- maybe this wouldn't be so bad.

We ordered two glasses of wine while we pondered the menu. My friend's glass, a pinot noir, had the vinegary bite of a red wine that has been opened a bit too long -- perhaps some would say this is what we deserved for ordering a glass of wine (instead of a bottle), but it was annoying just the same. As it was still drinkable -- just not as tasty as could be -- we didn't send it back, not wishing to be "that table" so early in the game. Unfortunately, our meal wasn't off to a very promising start.

The Maryland crabcake appetizer, along with the delicious, fresh-baked rolls from the bakery, improved our situation. The lump crabmeat was fresh and complimented by a delicate salad of fingerling potatoes, tomato and red pepper relish, as well as a tangy Dijon-garlic mayonnaise. My only complaint: The cake itself was so tiny -- it was gone in five bites, leaving my friend and I to hungrily wonder whether it was, in fact, worth the $9.75.

Ordering entrees proved to be a challenge since Café Selmarie has so many appetizing offerings. Monkfish with sautéed spinach and roasted tomatoes, braised lamb shank with root vegetable gratin, and Amish chicken were just some of the ambitious options available. But this creativity comes at a pretty ambitious cost; most of the entrees are priced from $15-$18.

After consulting with my server, I finally settled on the mushroom and asparagus risotto. My first bites were amazing: ivory-colored pasta flecked with bits of fresh asparagus and baby peas, surrounded by wild mushrooms and drizzled with truffle oil. But after a bit, I realized that something was definitely wrong: I was filling up way too fast, due to the fact that the dish contained an exorbitant amount of cream. Now, I know that risotto usually has a creamy consistency, but this was insanely over the top. My math skills are far from stellar, but I figured that I was only able to finish about $5 worth of my $15 entrée.

My friend, however, could only sympathize with my frustration since he was very content with his choice -- one of the day's specials. Tart cherry jus was spooned over a tender grilled pork chop, served alongside cumin roasted potatoes and baby green beans. Each part of his dish was perfectly cooked and the salty and sweet ingredients complimented each other enormously well. Yet, I had to wonder why we were paying $18 for an entrée in a place where people were plugged into laptops and sipping paper cups of coffee just five steps away.

When we asked our server for a dessert menu, she informed us that we needed to go over to the bakery side of the establishment to see what was offered. There's nothing quite as awkward as getting up in the middle of dinner (especially when the tables are placed so closely together) and walking to another part of the restaurant to decide what to order for dessert. Despite this annoying hullabaloo, we decided to order the chocolate raspberry torte cake -- actually, correction: My friend decided to order the chocolate raspberry torte cake (which he said was decent, but a bit dry). I was too full to move.

Why am I being so hard on this place? Maybe because when the bill came, I owed (gulp) $65 not including tip and I really did not think the whole experience warranted this high of price tag. Café Selmarie was pleasant, creative, and appetizing, but although it had the fine dining prices, it lacked the atmosphere, staff expertise, and overall precision of a fine dining establishment.

If you're still interested in Café Selmarie, I would recommend visiting for brunch when the prices are less exorbitant. But if you're going purely to sample the super-creamy entrée they call risotto, don't bother: I have some leftovers in my fridge that would be enough to feed you and five to seven of your closest friends.

Café Selmarie is located at 4729 N. Lincoln. Their menu changes seasonally. Visit them online at www.cafeselmarie.com.

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Comments

amyc / April 19, 2004 6:13 AM

Wow, I wonder if they've raised their prices significantly since the last time I had dinner there. I had a delicious scallop and scallion quiche plus dessert for about $15. It's such a lovely little place, it would suck if they had started gouging people on the prices.

Dan / April 19, 2004 9:25 AM

I lived in Lincoln Square for two years, and Selmarie is hands-down one of my favorite places in the area. That said, I whole-heartedly agree that some of the entrees can be a bit expensive, but a few of the items (breakfast items, the quiches and chicken pot pie) are relatively cheap and quite filling. I would definitely recommend this place for brunch (it gets to be quite hopping on a Sunday), or for a quick sweet tooth fix. (It's one of the best places in the city to go for sweets if you're lactose or wheat-germ intolerant.)

shechemist / April 19, 2004 10:04 AM

Caf Selmarie is a great place for brunch/lunch. even when they are packed, you can get a great cup of coffee, a split a muffin, and sit on the square while you wait. one of the things I hate the most about meeting folks for brunch is having to wait for a table when I haven't eaten in the past 12 hours. you are spot on about their dinner menu. the food is great, but spendy for a cafe.

brian / April 19, 2004 3:56 PM

Whine: I wish they served coffee with actual cream when dining and not the stupid Denny's style cream containers. Hopefully it's changed since I was last there in Feb.

Cinnamon / April 20, 2004 10:30 AM

When I first went into Selmarie I was charmed and delighted. But over the years I've come to the same conclusions. Overpriced, service is slow and nonchalant (which is fine, but not if you're dropping a bundle), and their baked goods quality hasn't dropped at all.

Jeff W. / April 21, 2004 5:51 PM

I moved to LS just over two years ago; I immediately gravitated to Selmarie. It is a lovely little spot for pastries and great java. If you go there for brunch and you'll almost never be disappointed.

However, your complaints about dinner is my complaint about eating at most "mid-priced" places in the city -- it just isn't a "good value." A $65 tab for dinner for two with wine is a great price -- if you leave feeling well-fed and well-attended-to. I almost never leave dinner in the city feeling that way.

I am a big fan of Selmarie, but like most places on the North side (Lakeview, Lincoln Park, and Lincoln Square in particular), this place needs to drop the prices for dinner by $2-$6 per plate, IMHO. This is also true of the "bar food" staples at The Daily, Square Kitchen, The Grafton, Cullen's, etc.

lena / April 22, 2004 8:37 PM

for so many years selmarie was the *only* decent/nice/nonbar resturant in the square so they could charge what ever they wanted. they haven't noticed they're not the only one now.

 

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