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.

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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