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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'd 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'd 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 at all. One of those urban myths that sounds credible because of its detailed content, it can't actually be traced to its source of origin. And, a couple of years ago, the L.A. Times reported that the "Neiman-Marcus Cookie" 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 a written 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 stores are once again shopping destinations, and their dining rooms are prospering.
Department stores are responding by installing even more eateries. Some, like Neiman Marcus' Zodiac cafes, are owned and operated by the stores, while others, like those in Saks Fifth Avenue stores, 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 cafes.
Of all the department store dining rooms, the Zodiac is far and away the most genteel, a place where even Emily Post would feel at home. While a meal there isn't as pricey as, say, a scarf, salads going for over $10 a pop sound like luxury items to me. At the Zodiac in Bal Harbour Shops in Miami-Dade, the floor is covered with carpeting, the tables with white tablecloths, which contrast nicely with the dark-wood armchairs. Framed, poster-size photographs of glamorous Neiman Marcus 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 a variety of "composed salads" as well as sandwiches and luncheon entrees. The most expensive -- a New York steak rubbed with peppercorn Dijon mustard, or grilled salmon with a warm vinaigrette of ginger and mustard -- cost $14.95 each; salads, such as seafood Louis or roasted shrimp and avocado, hover near the $13 mark. Priced at $8.95 each, 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 cheese, and served warm on ten-grain bread. Fresh fruit salad -- consisting of 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 not only excellent; it was 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 OK; you can always get the recipe off the Internet.
At the other end of Bal Harbour Shops, in Saks Fifth Avenue, is the three-year-old Petals bistro. 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.