My grandfather, Harry Stern, who was German, was a tenor with La Scala. His stage name was Enrico Sterlio and his best friend was Enrico Caruso, who I thought from the sound of his name must really be Harry Caray. My grandparents were so anxious to assimilate that my mother wasn’t taught a word of German, but she made things up from what she overheard. Things like, “In my whole leibkuchen, I never heard of such a thing,” thinking leibkuchen was the German word for life. It was in the Delicatessen Meyer in Lincoln Square last Christmas that I found out something my mother never knew. Life is a coffee cake.

Besides the Delicatessen Meyer, the block of Lincoln between Lawrence and Leland boasts a German travel bureau; a German record and tape shop; Chicago Brauhaus, a German nightclub/restaurant; and, the height of redundancy, a German martial arts academy.

At the corner of Lincoln and Leland is Enisa’s European Pastry Shop & Cafe, an old-world frilly-pink candy box of a place with dainty tables and chairs and a menu that runs to the traditional four esses: sandwiches, salads, sodas, and sundaes. This is a favorite spot of sturdy burghers who like to devour coffees and pastries long on the shlagsahne (whipped cream).

Facing onto the little plaza at mid-block is Cafe Selmarie–its moniker an amalgam of the middle names of its two women owners, one of whom is German. Even though it’s been around for nine years, Cafe Selmarie seems like the new kid on the block, the upstart. It isn’t just the addition of a modishly decorated new room last December; it’s that, compared to the stolid citizenry of the rest of the square, its customers and waitstaff seem so new world, so hip, so young and slender (a miracle considering the fantastic baked goods). And then there’s the decidedly un-German menu. It features daily specials such as Indian stew ($7.25) served with a fresh green salad, and macaroni and cheese made with Gruyere, Romano, and blue cheese ($6.95).

There are even a couple of boxes of toys for restless kids–kids who have the kind of yuppie daddies who buy them off with the expensive bakery cookies ($7.50 a pound) so they can read the Wall Street Journal in peace. One child, celebrating a birthday, was presented with an entire strawberry roulade, sponge cake rolled around strawberries and whipped cream, custom-baked and decorated for her and her jaded little friends.

The cafe’s bakery features whole cakes, quiches, tarts, cookies, and breads. With a little help from my friends I’ve had a lot of the cafe’s pastries. I ate a fabulous raspberry chocolate tart with a shortbread crust ($2.95); I ate a cinnamon and pecan bun drizzled with lemon glaze ($1.50); I ate a slice of apple strudel ($1.75); and I ate a slice of the aforementioned strawberry roulade ($2.50)–all in the name of research. I also ate miniature butter cookies that weren’t buttery enough and a dry whole-wheat scone ($1.40). Whole-wheat flour just doesn’t work for baking anything but bread. Even my dogs, given to devouring frozen racks of lamb, bones and all, once spit out whole-wheat chocolate chip cookies.

I also ate a wedge of what is arguably the definitive bread pudding topped with a caramel glaze ($2.50). My search for the best bread pudding, like my search for the perfect Caesar salad, has sometimes led me to set aside my scruples. I once went with a man much longer than either of us deserved just for his caramel sauce. Though I once gave my own recipe in these pages, I’ve never been completely satisfied with it because it’s a coward’s compromise. The only way to make perfect caramel sauce is to heat splattering, popping sugar to nuclear meltdown accompanied by a screeching smoke alarm.

The bakery isn’t the only reason to try Cafe Selmarie. Although this isn’t the place for a seven-course meal, it’s a good choice for lunch or a casual dinner. Soups are made from fresh vegetable and chicken stocks. The sweet-potato soup ($1.85 cup/$2.95 bowl) is subtle and not overly sweet. An inventive vegetarian chili ($2.85 cup/$3.95 bowl) with tomato chunks, raisins, and cashews is more sweet than spicy, but a nice change. The turkey breast sandwich ($3.95) consists of real (not processed) turkey served on the cafe’s own wheat bread. The calzone ($6.95), a crusty whole-wheat turnover filled with mozzarella, Parmesan, and a ratatouille of fresh vegetables, comes with a green salad. There’s also a rich, custardy vegetable quiche ($3.25). Avoid the spinach and cheddar pie wrapped in phyllo dough ($7.95). As much as I like rich cream sauce, this one overwhelms the cheese.

All my women friends love tuna salad, and Cafe Selmarie’s is the best we’ve ever tasted, chunk light tuna (dolphin-safe) with fresh vegetables in mayonnaise ($4.25 sandwich/$6.50 plate).

Cafe Selmarie also serves Starbucks coffees. So many people have become hooked on Starbucks that I wonder if it, like the original Coca-Cola, which contained cocaine, has something addictive in it other than caffeine.

Cafe Selmarie, 2327 W. Giddings, is open 10 to 10 Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 10 to 11 Friday, 9 to 11 Saturday, and closed Monday. Brunch is served from 10 to 3 Sunday. The cafe doesn’t have a liquor license, but you can bring your own if you’re willing to pay a $1.50 corkage fee. For more information, call 989-5595.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.