When thinking about Neiman Marcus, a few things come to mind -- tanorexic MILFs, elderly women dripping in diamonds, and that gorgeous, cherry-colored Marc Jacobs bag that I would sell my soul for. Recently, a friend suggested that I join her for a bite to eat at the famed department store's café, The Little Mermaid Bar, a place where the word lunch is used exclusively as a verb. For some reason, the idea of a midday meal at Neiman Marcus, aside from being a bizarre choice, made me uncomfortable.
Some will argue that my discomfort is due to my lack of class, pedigree, or couth -- all of which is true but beside the point. After verifying that the café served beer and wine, I agreed to go, preparing myself for a pretentious wait staff, uptight atmosphere, and bland, over-priced food. What I found when I arrived was startling.
I had just stepped into a time warp.The Little Mermaid Bar, usually referred to as The Mermaid Bar, looked more like a small '60s-style diner than the chichi café that I had envisioned. An oddly-shaped, quartz counter consumes most of the space in the diminutive wood-paneled café . Overhead, a series of pendant lights warm the room, casting an inviting yet unflattering (read: not Instagram- friendly) yellow glow on the patrons grazing nearby.
The snooty wait staff, which I had braced myself for, were nowhere to be found. Instead, a friendly staff, dressed in crisp white dress shirts and black trousers, greeted me. Previous discomfort quickly turned into an odd sense of disappointment as my expectation gap began to widen. I scanned the menu, desperately looking for the Aha! Dish--that ridiculously simple dish that's been bastardized with trendy and totally superfluous accouterments. My search was in vain. There was no diamond-encrusted tilapia, no caviar burger with moose milk cheese, shaved truffles, and platinum leafing.
Instead my options included grilled cheese, Mandarin Orange Soufflé, and zucchini bread. I was dumbfounded. Either I was being Punk'd, or I was in for some serious old school dining; the latter of which was quickly confirmed after being asked if I'd like a complimentary popover.
I relented -- sure, keep 'em coming. Neiman's complimentary popovers with strawberry butter are just one of
the restaurant's signature items. The light and airy rolls are baked
fresh daily and are offered to diners before every meal. Defeated in my quest to be treated like the 99-percenter that I am, I settled in for lunch at Neiman's.
Neiman Marcus has more than 40 department stores nationwide. The luxury department store opened its first restaurant, The Zodiac Room, in Dallas in 1953. Later the company hired famed gourmet chef Helen Corbitt as its food services director. Her dishes were often thought to be ahead of their time; posthumously, Corbitt has been likened to both Julia Child and strangely, to fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga.
Many of the recipes that Corbitt created during her career at Neiman's are still used today. Diners regularly ask for many of her popular recipes like her Monkey Bread and her poppy seed dressing. The restaurant usually obliges their requests.
Today, many of the department stores have restaurants that range from fine dining restaurants to small espresso bars. There are only three Mermaid Bars in the country. The one in the Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale has been there for 29 years; its chef, Terry King, has worked there for 26. When asked why he's stayed at the restaurant, King, a man of few words, simply replied, "It's a good place to work." Much of the Mermaid Bar's staff has been at the restaurant for years, including two dishwashers who have been there since the restaurant opened and servers, many of whom have been at the restaurant for upwards of ten years or more.
Menu items range from $4.50 to $18.00, not including their wine and champagne, which tops out at $59 for a bottle of J Brut Rosé. There are gluten-free items as well as low calorie meals, part of the restaurant's Go Figure, "healthy lifestyle" options.
Bypassing the healthy wraps and salads, as is my custom, I decided to go all out, eating my way through the classics, starting with the tomato bisque. The rich, slightly sweet soup doesn't go heavy on the cream. It's served daily along with a soup of the day.
Every Friday, the soup of the day is lobster bisque which is also a fan favorite. I happened to luck out on this occasion since I had a friend with me so I tried
nearly all a few spoonfuls of hers. Immediately, I noted a delightful hit of sherry flavor that unlike other lobster bisques, wasn't obscured by a heavy-handed pour of cream.
I was tipped-off that a certain brawny, Italian chef whose name rhymes with Steve Martorano, is a fan of the chicken salad (he is rumored to skip the orange soufflé ). Intrigued by this mid-century throwback and its alleged link to a man whose pasta sauce labels are a personal source of infinite joy, I had to try it.
The wobbling, molded soufflé , along with the tender chicken salad, had a lovely balance of sweet and savory; not to mention the unusual but pleasant texture. Two moist slices of zucchini bread accompanied the dish.
Dessert came in two forms: a warm, gooey chocolate chip cookie (another signature item), and a tart and refreshing Limoncello-berry tiramisu.
Though I never found the emerald-studded foie gras patty melt that I was so desperately seeking, Neiman's Mermaid Bar proved to be worth its weight in orange soufflé . Sadly, the next time I visit, I'll have to opt for water, a popover, and a cup of coffee -- that Marc Jacobs bag isn't going to pay for itself.
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