Pastime Lunchtime

Now there are shopping mall food courts. But once all the classiest department stores used to have their own lunchrooms, featuring food like iceberg lettuce wedges with old-fashioned white boiled salad dressing -- polite food that didn't stain the white gloves, light food for those with lots of leisure time and little need to fuel activities more taxing than trying on frocks, Ladies Who Lunch food. Since my boomer generation is basically composed of Ladies Who Work Through Lunch, I rarely got to indulge except on visits home to Mom, but remember those mother/daughter department-store lunches with considerable nostalgic fondness.

Much to my surprise, a friend who came down from New York last winter to visit her Miami mom reported that the classic Ladies Who Lunch lunch is still alive and thriving, at Neiman Marcus in Bal Harbour. "It was the best lobster salad I ever had!" she enthused. "And they had consommé!" No white-dressed iceberg wedges were in evidence. But, be still my heart: "They had POPOVERS!"

I'd not seen popovers in any public eatery in so long that I began to wonder if my friend had indeed hallucinated the entire experience when I couldn't find any restaurant listed in Neiman Marcus's store directory. It's there, though. Listed just as Zodiac, the café is not one of the modish modern see-and-be-seen spots in the mall's street-level outdoor court, but inside Neiman's and discreetly screened off on an upper floor, as department-store restaurants used to be. Upon being seated (surrounded largely by ladies dressed as Ladies used to dress), I noted on the menu I was immediately handed that a $5 order of consommé and popovers was listed. Within seconds, however, a demitasse of perfectly clear chicken broth, accompanied by a humongous warm puffy popover with strawberry butter, appeared on my table -- for free.


Zodiac at Neiman Marcus

Bal Harbour Shops, 9700 Collins Ave., Miami Beach

Open daily 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (from noon on Sunday) Call 305-865-6161.

The lovely light broth, which tasted like pure essence of chicken, appeared to be bottomless, too; I sipped my cup with ladylike slowness to make up for my ratty cross-trainers (definitely not the $330 Chanel sneakers on sale downstairs), but a spiffier dresser at the next table in a flower-bedecked faux Stetson, who didn't need to compensate, finished her portion in a flash and was immediately offered seconds, and then thirds. Nice gesture.

While there were a few full hot entrées offered, the menu's biggest section was devoted to composed salads. To my disappointment the supreme lobster salad wasn't listed -- the server, when I asked, in fact looked blank -- and some salads seemed to be the usual suspects: a caprese, a caesar. There was a good traditional cobb salad, though -- of chopped lettuce, full-flavored apple-smoked bacon, grilled chicken, hard boiled egg, blue cheese, tomato, and avocado -- that lacked only celery and watercress to duplicate the original from Hollywood's Brown Derby. A plate of mixed salads (mild chicken salad with huge poultry chunks, spinach salad, a cup of fruit salad) with moist fruit/nut bread seemed another blast from the past, centering, as it did according to the menu, on a mandarin orange soufflé. Unfortunately, it was not a soufflé, but an orange Bavarian cream. Still quivering cream-spiked gelatin molds are time trips, too.

And "earth and moon gingered crabcakes" with Asian chili flakes actually sounded far more alarmingly cutting edge than they turned out to be. With barely a hint of ginger or chili heat, more sweetness than anything outright oniony in the almond/shallot sauce, and a Last Days of the Raj drizzle of curry, the two cakes of real crab were solidly old British Empire comfort food.

For dessert I naturally asked for Neiman Marcus's famous chocolate chip cookie. Sadly, however, my apologetic server reported that Zodiac hasn't served the addictively chewy chocolate classic since last year -- when, perhaps coincidentally, the story of the store's secret recipe getting blown by an accidental-activist shopping guerrilla enjoyed a worldwide Web revival. For those who don't know this urban myth, here's the short version: Lady lunching at Neiman Marcus, impressed by café's chocolate chip cookie, asks for recipe. Told by waitress she can buy recipe, for "two-fifty." Does. Next credit card statement, is billed $250. The store will not budge in refunding Lady's dough. Lady, deciding two can play hardball, shares $250 dough recipe with world via e-mail. As will I, with any New Times reader who e-mails me and asks -- in fact, I'll share both the official recipe and the slightly different clandestine version; Zodiac may opt to live dangerously, but I'd not dream of depriving department store Ladies (and gents) Who Lunch of the perfect finish.


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