Afternoon Delights

He wasn't as successful with the "Montreal famous smoke burger," two grilled panini stuffed with smoked turkey, corned beef, and kosher salami. Wrapped in aluminum foil, the sandwich was burnt, so we sent it back. The second attempt was also a little well-done for our tastes, but there was no arguing with the quality of the meat. The turkey was sliced as thin as lace, the corned beef was exceptionally lean, and the salami wasn't greasy, as it can often be when cooked. A perky artichoke and hearts-of-palm salad garnished the plate.

Low overhead -- the staffs in these places are generally small, as are the menus -- combined with reasonable rent and a captive audience make department-store dining rooms pretty profitable for entrepreneurial restaurateurs. Though manager Traci Novoson says that Migicovsky's next project is a Coco's in Aventura Mall, he's also looking into opening a Saks Fifth Avenue Petals in both Dadeland and the Boca Towne Center in Boca Raton. His competition there will be Jean-Louis Queller, formerly a chef at Cafe Gloria in Boca Raton, who opened the Balcony Bistro in Bloomingdale's this past January.

The Bloomingdale's stores in Aventura Mall and the Falls also offer privately run restaurants. But only the 83-seat Balcony Bistro in the Boca Towne Center, which overlooks the huge parking lots, has a distinct French air about it. Diner-style service and a strip of pink neon trimming the ceiling may clash with the striped tablecloths and French tunes on the sound system, but the menu -- and Queller's cooking -- makes up for any faux pas.

Prices were a bit more reasonable. Salads, omelets, quiches, and sandwiches sell for seven dollars each, and only the entrees -- boeuf bourguignon, veal stew, or chicken Normandy -- break the sawbuck barrier. One difference: The Balcony Bistro has appetizers. After a tough hour or two of pricing objets d'art, we found tangy, homemade gazpacho refreshing and duck pate with cornichons restoring. We just wish they hadn't been served with saltines. The rich, country-style pate in particular deserves a baguette slice or two.

A caesar salad could have used some dressing, rather than just a dusting of Parmesan. But the grilled salmon that topped the romaine was moist and succulent. The crepes, which were partnered with a crisp green salad sprinkled with a slightly sweet, homemade cider-Dijon vinaigrette, were a better choice. Filled with chunks of chicken and dark, meaty mushrooms in a cream sauce, the crepes alone were worth enduring the weekend mall traffic.

Noontime gridlock in downtown Miami isn't forgiving either, and parking can be tough near the flagship Burdines, where the Royal Palm Cafe is the bargain basement of department-store dining rooms. The cafe is more than 80 years old and looks it: Table legs are nicked and scarred; the pink-and-aqua color scheme is faded; the large, square space utilitarian in design. Yet the food, none of it priced higher than seven dollars, is homemade and astonishingly good.

The menu lacks focus -- items range from French onion soup to gnocchi to Texas grilled cheese -- but a subtle Floribbean influence sneaks in here and there, with quesadillas served with black beans and rice or jerk chicken topped with mango-papaya salsa. We went with a steamy chicken potpie, which offered hunks of white-meat poultry, carrots, onions, peas, corn, lima beans, and a velvety sauce. A flaky hand-pinched crust sealed the seemingly bottomless pie.

Sliced steak sandwich was a platter filled with marinated, oven-roasted beef. The meat was sliced and laid open-face over a kaiser roll, with jus and a bland horseradish dressing served on the side. An enormous pile of French fries overflowed the plate; the meal was a bargain at $5.95. Burdines, it seems, knows something Neiman Marcus doesn't -- the less you spend on lunch, the more you spend on retail.

The point, however, is that department-store dining rooms aren't attracting only shoppers. They're no longer a midday oasis for burned-out mothers and bored bluehairs. And while some cafes, like the Balcony Bistro, offer discount incentives to mall employees, the dining rooms aren't merely havens for staff. They've become restaurants in their own right, and everyone from regulars to power lunchers is booking tables. Whether you go the ritzy route (Neiman Marcus) or the routine (Burdines), you're bound to get a well-cooked, reasonably priced meal.

Zodiac in Neiman Marcus (Bal Harbour Shops), 9700 Collins Ave, Bal Harbour; 865-6161. Open daily for lunch and dinner from 11:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m; Saturday and Sunday until 5:00 p.m.

Petals in Saks Fifth Avenue (Bal Harbour Shops), 9700 Collins Ave, Bal Harbour; 865-1100. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Balcony Bistro in Bloomingdale's (Boca Towne Center), 5840 Glades Rd, Boca Raton; 561-394-2265. Open daily for lunch and dinner from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.; Sunday from noon until 5:00 p.m.

Royal Palm Cafe in Burdines, 22 E Flagler St; 577-2420. Open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

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