photo: courtesy of Anne Ryan
I'm not good with surprises. I try to tell myself (and Steamer) that I want to be whisked away to a fancy dinner or Caribbean holiday on less than a moment's notice, but in reality, I read the menu before I head to dinner, check what's on BRAVO before
I go to the gym, and make my lunch the night before.
But there are a few surprises that don't cause even a wrinkle of stress, my favorite of which is the unexpected cheap vino night. I had planned to meet Merle earlier in the week, and we settled on Lincoln Square as a happy middle ground. It's a neighborhood I unwittingly omit from my social life; having lived along the Red and Blue lines, it was always just a bit outside my typical travel radius.
Lucky for Merle, then, who picked one of his favorites as our Wednesday night destination: Cafe Selmarie. ("We can pretend we're in a cafe in Paris!" he emailed). His description wasn't too much of a stretch: I walked into a sweet cafe-bakery hybrid, its glass cases full of tempting sweets and its tables made for sipping espresso on a Sunday morning. Just beyond it was an equally sweet and sunny dining room, elevated a bit in terms of class but no less filled with coffee-drinking patrons.
Our waitress ran down the day's dishes—Merle and I locked eyes at the mention of tomato bisque—ending with the best special of all: half-price bottles of wine. So long, cup of coffee!
The still-chilly weather demanded red, and Merle let me pick a 2003 Irony Cabernet Sauvignon, discounted to $16 a bottle. It was a satisfying selection—priced just a tad more than what it would have been if I found it on the shelf of the just-steps-away Lincoln Square Provenance. With light tannins, it was rich without too much bite, full of cherries and raspberries—very yummy, very drinkable sans food, which was a good thing. After putting off our waitress a handful of times in favor of conversation, we didn't make up our mind until I was a good glass in.
We both opted for the tomato bisque. I tried to channel summer with a chopped salad; Merle went winter with the Hungarian goulash. After dipping into the eclectic bread basket, munching on bread sticks and rolls, the cups of soup arrived, and they were dynamite. Thoroughly blended but left with just a bit of texture, it was deliciously cheese-tinged, and though it doesn't sound too posh to say this, it tasted like a bowl of pizza. That was a good thing.
My hold-the-bacon, hold-the-chicken, veggie-style salad was a good thing, too. It was a massive plate of finely chopped ingredients, which I've since replicated no less than eight times at home. The key, as Cafe Selmarie so blissfully instructed, is to cut every piece very, very small: Teeny bits of lettuce came studded with a heavy, heavy shake of blue cheese, minced red onion, mini-cubes of tomato, and bits of avocado and hard-boiled egg. Dressed in a sherry vinaigrette, it's a salad I can safely bet on ordering again.
As I polished off my salad and the remainder of the bottle, Merle slowpoked his way through a too-big-for-his-appetite dish of braised beef over wide noodles. But for as full as he was, Merle passed on one important Selmarie lesson to me: You can't leave without having dessert…and a small bag of cookies to go. He had purchased two sacks, filled with a mix of chocolate, raspberry-jam and oatmeal cookies, along with a fat slice of carrot cake.
We ate our way through the moist cake, split a $50 bill, and bid au revoir, me peddling home with a fat bag of cookies that deflated not an hour after I arrived. I'd like to say it was all Steamer's doing, but I couldn't help but oui, oui, oui my way through the bag—and most likely back to Selmarie, on some not-too-distant Wednesday.
Zinny Fandel's tales of living the (mostly) BYOB life are intended to be attempted at home and in the community, preferably at BYOB restaurants. If you know of a BYOB spot she simply must tipple at, let her know.