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Art House 

Nestled along the endless row of shop-friendly Magazine Street, WINNIE'S ARTSY CAFE fits right in with his funky ambience and panini-style sandwiches.

I've noticed that people find the name of Winnie's Artsy Cafe either terribly self-conscious or brilliantly self-confident. Whichever your perspective, if you drive down Magazine Street regularly you've probably caught yourself imagining what lies behind Winnie's cardinal-red door, studying the sign that swings above the cafe's blue stairs and drooling over its yard-long sandwich, and watching the ladies perched day after day upon the diner stools on Winnie's covered porch and wondering what you're missing.

There's no disputing that Winnie's is an artsy cafe. Where to begin ... at the wild tufts of knee-high grasses sprouting from the patch of ground between Winnie's section of sidewalk and the curb? At the frosty sunbeams delicately sketched on an inner window? At the lampshade fabricated from wire caging and something that resembles vacuum cleaner bristles? At the ruby slippers, the exquisite foot-tall potted trees, the red-wine walls, the plastic trout or the fluffy clouds on the ceiling? When the stars are aligned, at least one customer thinks to wear her leopard-print blouse. The stereo plays dreamy, massage-room music, and a television plays videos of red desert landscapes. This project of passion is tacky, kitschy, New Age, cute, creative and, if you can imagine, tasteful.

I have a cousin who buys a shot glass in every city she visits; it appears as if owners David Crews and Mike Wingerter (Winnie) take a souvenir from every vintage, antique and consignment shop they find. If costume jewelry replaced the housemade chocolate chunk cookies and uber-sweet lemon bars in the dessert display case, they could open as a retail bazaar worthy of eclectic Magazine Street.

The dining room's eccentricities stop at the kitchen door, where resourcefulness takes over in the form of a sandwich press the size of a card table. Choosing from the panini-style sandwich portion of the menu is irrefutably the best way to secure a satisfying lunch. Each one is made with salted, focaccia-style bread that's weighty with olive oil, coated with dried herbs and, according to one employee, baked for Winnie's at La Louisiane Bakery. Plain mozzarella cheese alone pressed between slices of this stuff would be delicious.

Creamy Havarti cheese, basil pesto, tomato and crispy bacon go into making the Leona, an unlikely sandwich that will torture the vegetarians at your table. An accommodating lady, Leona sheds her cured pork for anyone with conflicting beliefs. Don't stress if you feel the staff bullying you into the smoked turkey sandwich with roasted portobello mushrooms, orange marmalade and more Havarti cheese, which resembles Brie when it melts. This is the most popular sandwich for good reason, even when you can't taste the cranberry or the jalapeno listed on the menu.

Burritos made with whole wheat or spinach tortillas are warmed and branded with the same press marks. The Elvisito -- crunchy peanut butter, ripe bananas, honey -- satisfies a childlike hankering I share with the King. Winnie's recently resumed brunch service on the weekends; providing you can get into warm smoked salmon, the Salmon Sunrise burrito with lightly scrambled eggs, cooked spinach, capers, red onions and dill-seasoned cream cheese is a viable way to start the day.

A fine tomato soup du jour with green bell peppers and a touch of cream was evidence that the kitchen isn't under total control of the sandwich press; a punchy potato salad, made with Creole mustard and new potatoes in their skins, also exhibits that Chef Mike loves to cook when he's not busy pressing. The cold Grecian Vegetarian is an odd sandwich of rice-stuffed grape leaves, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and not enough feta cheese that's worth ordering once if you're curious. Salads are to be avoided on account of less-than-sprightly greens, which is a shame since the creamy tarragon dressing is wonderful.

Just as you need to appreciate the sandwich press in order to value the best food at Winnie's, you need to acquiesce when the staffwide artist's temperament threatens the dining peace. It's a small room, and the air tightens in a heartbeat if you mistakenly stand on the wrong side of the counter, say, or if the person delivering your food must call your name twice. I once bit into a piece of moldy bread that had accompanied the Tuscan white bean salad -- furry, blue mold. I waited until no customers were in earshot, lowered my voice and apologized to the cashier for my discovery. "Oh honey," he said, "That's just olive oil and herbs." He turned to another man, who agreed that the blue fur in my hand was olive oil and herbs. Ultimately someone brought out other bread, though it came with no acknowledgement, no apology and no refund (I had paid upon ordering).

It wasn't the mold that got me -- I've found a cockroach in my water and seen a manager lick the spoon he then used to stir my hot chocolate in finer restaurants -- but the response. The customer isn't always right, but she's got a decent case when she's holding a piece of bread that's more suited for petting than eating.

Self-conscious? Hardly. Self-confident? Perhaps too.

click to enlarge Project of passion: The hodge-podge of objects inside WINNIE'S ARTSY CAFE is a combination of tacky, kitschy, New Age, cute and innovative pieces that add up to thoroughly creative. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Project of passion: The hodge-podge of objects inside WINNIE'S ARTSY CAFE is a combination of tacky, kitschy, New Age, cute and innovative pieces that add up to thoroughly creative.
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