Afternoon Delights

I've learned not to take too seriously anything that comes my way via the Internet. Petitions, virus hoaxes, chain letters -- not only are they not worth reading, but I would never, as suggested, mail the garbage to everyone I know.

But then there's the "Neiman-Marcus cookie" story, about a woman who was charged $250 on her Visa for a chocolate-chip cookie recipe from the cafe in the Dallas department store. It seems she requested the recipe after she had already paid her lunch bill, then trusted the restaurant to charge her credit card appropriately. But when she received her monthly statement, she owed $285, which included the lunch and a $20 scarf she purchased that day. Out for revenge, the woman began circulating her tale of woe, along with the recipe, to "everyone she knows," including my friends and acquaintances, who passed it along to me.

Turns out the story isn't true. One of those urban myths that sound credible because of the detailed content, it can't actually be traced to its origin. And, a couple of years ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that the story is filled with inconsistencies. The chain no longer uses a hyphen in its name, for instance, and never accepted Visa. Nor, as any Neiman Marcus devotee will tell you, does the store sell scarves for $20. The chain says in an Internet rebuttal that it "never served cookies in its restaurants until recently, when we developed a new chocolate-chip cookie recipe in response to this myth."

Which leads me to this question: If Neiman Marcus didn't serve cookies in its cafe until now, what exactly did it offer?

The upscale department-store chain, known to many as "Needless Markup," has operated cafes for 90 years, surviving economic booms and busts and, in some cases, backlashes against a style of dining often thought too highbrow. But what was once the domain of ladies who lunch is now frequented by the leisurely who lunch. As the economy continues to thrive, providing people with more disposable income, department-store dining rooms are prospering.

Some dining rooms, like Neiman Marcus's Zodiac cafes, are owned and operated by the stores, while others, like those in Saks Fifth Avenue, are run by private vendors. Either way, department-store dining can be a pleasant way to pass a lunch hour -- whether you're shopping in the area or not. The quick service and ample people-watching opportunities make them ideal for solo diners or workers on their lunch breaks. I've even seen business meetings take place in the more elegant varieties.

Of all the department-store dining rooms, Zodiac is far and away the most genteel, a place where even Martha Stewart would feel at home. While a meal there isn't as pricey as, say, a scarf, salads going for more than ten dollars a pop sound like luxury items to me. At the Zodiac in Bal Harbour Shops, the floor is covered with carpeting and the tables with white tablecloths, which contrast nicely with the dark-wood armchairs. Framed poster-size photographs of glamorous models hang on the walls. Our meal began traditionally, with a complimentary cup of consomme and a steaming popover served with strawberry butter. We felt as pampered as the beribboned poodle tucked under one patron's arm.

Zodiac offers an array of "composed salads" as well as sandwiches and luncheon entrees. The most expensive entree -- a New York steak rubbed with peppercorn Dijon mustard, or grilled salmon with a warm vinaigrette of ginger and mustard -- cost $14.95; salads, such as seafood Louis or roasted shrimp and avocado, hover near the $13.00 mark. At $8.95, the hefty sandwiches seem to be the best deal. A portobello mushroom sandwich was delicious. The juicy mushroom cap was augmented with grilled eggplant and squash, blanketed with mozzarella, and served warm on ten-grain bread. Fresh fruit salad -- cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, strawberries, cashews, and dried apricots -- accompanied the sandwich.

Even more filling was a salad plate. A generous scoop of mellow curried chicken salad was excellent and arrived paired with a soothing mandarin-orange souffle, which was more like a miniature flan, and garnished with a wealth of fruit and a nut-bread finger sandwich. Figure in the soup and popover, and you've got quite a meal. Too much, perhaps, to sample the Neiman Marcus cookie, especially if you're anxious to get back to shopping (or, if you must, work). But that's okay; you can always get the recipe free on the Internet.

At the other end of Bal Harbour Shops, in Saks Fifth Avenue, is the three-year-old Petals. Owned and operated by David Migicovsky of Coco's Sidewalk Cafe, also located in the Shops, the bistro splits 33 seats between a small interior and an even tinier balcony. The high ceiling and wrought-iron chairs are painted off-white, and watercolor still lifes accent the walls. If Zodiac is for the leisurely who lunch, Petals is for the nanas who nosh.

While the prices are comparable, the fare is less froufrou. The menu includes bagels, omelets, burgers, and pizzas, averaging around $8.00; lunch entrees, including Maryland crabcakes, rosemary chicken, or ravioli with Alfredo sauce, can run up to $14.95. We enjoyed a hefty dish of matzo Brie with Nova and onions, and not because it was Passover. The egg-soaked matzo, sauteed with the smoked salmon and mild onions, is always on the menu. Surprisingly tasty, the Brie was prepared by the chef de cuisine, Pablo V. Nieto, who worked previously at New York City's China Grill.

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