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While the prices are comparable, the fare is less frilly. The menu includes bagels, omelets, burgers, and pizzas, each of which averages around $8; lunch entrees, including Maryland crabcakes, rosemary chicken, or ravioli with Alfredo sauce, can run as much as $14.95 a plate. We enjoyed a hefty dish of matzo Brie with Nova (lox) 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," 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 often can 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 Saks Fifth Avenue Petals restaurants in both Dadeland in Kendall and 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 in Miami-Dade County also offer privately run restaurants. But only the 83-seat Balcony Bistro in Towne Center, which overlooks the mall's massive 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 -- make up for any faux pas.
Prices were a bit more reasonable. Salads, omelets, quiches, and sandwiches sell for $7 each, and only the entrees -- beef 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 wished they hadn't been served with one packet of saltines each. 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 chopped 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 option. Filled with chunks of chicken and dark, meaty mushrooms in a cream sauce, the crepes alone were worth enduring the weekend mall traffic. (On weekdays it's easier to find a spot close to the department store for a speedy park-and-scarf.)
Noontime gridlock in downtown Miami isn't as forgiving, 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 over 80 years old and looks it: Table legs are nicked and scarred; the pink-and-aqua color scheme is faded; the large, square space is utilitarian in design. Yet the food, none of it priced higher than $7, 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, au jus, a bland horseradish dressing served on the side. An enormous pile of French fries overflowed the plate, 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 moms and bored bluehairs. And while some cafes, like the Balcony Bistro, offer discount incentives to mall associates, the dining rooms aren't strictly havens for employees. Rather they've become restaurants in their own rights, and everyone from regulars to power lunchers are booking tables at these spots. Whether you go the ritzy (Neiman Marcus) or the routine (Burdines) route, you're bound to get a well-cooked, reasonably priced meal. Unless you order the chocolate-chip cookie recipe, that is.
Balcony Bistro in Bloomingdale's (Towne Center), 5840 Glades Rd., Boca Raton, 561-394-2265. Open for lunch and early dinner daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday from noon until 5 p.m.