Holding food court

Style is as important in dining as it is in dressing. We humans define ourselves in subtle ways, believing you can judge a person not just by the company he keeps and the clothes he wears, but by the food he eats and the places he goes.

Certainly, restaurateurs believe people crowd to the latest chic bistro not just because the food is good, but because of the restaurant's image. More and more, restaurants are designed around personality and image instead of food. Think of such theme parks as the Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood, which send the message as clearly as Madison Avenue: If you eat like us, you'll be like us.

The link between fashion and food finally--and weirdly--came full circle with last year's opening of the Fashion Cafe, the Midtown Manhattan restaurant owned by and based on the celebrity of anorexic-looking high-fashion models, women whose job description is their image. And whose real-life lunch menu isn't much more than mineral water, a celery stick, and a cigarette.

Dallasites may not be any more style-conscious than people in any other big city where your image paves your way to success, but we do shop more and eat out more than people in most other places. It occurs to me that someone's missing out on some obvious cash here, because you can seldom eat and shop in the same place. You can eat very nicely at Barney's in NorthPark, for instance, but it's hard for real people, the kind of people who would eat there (and more than mineral water and celery) to actually find something to buy.

Yet department-store dining rooms are becoming dinosaurs. It's hard to explain their extinction; everyone wishes they were still around, but mostly, they're not. Must we, then, shop till we drop? Or find our way to the food pits in the belly of the malls?

The recent opening of Nordstrom at Galleria (now the largest mall in the city) called for a comparative taste of those in-store restaurants we do have left. Nordstrom has always inspired a fierce, almost fanatical loyalty from its shoppers; its opening here was hysterically heralded, as though Dallas had never had a good specialty store before. But of course we do already have our own hometown shopping Mecca. Neiman Marcus once inspired a similar degree of loyalty, so a Neiman's revisit seemed in order, along with a review of Nordstrom's in-store eateries.

There are three restaurants in Nordstrom. I tried two, Cafe Nordstrom and the Garden Court, leaving the Pub to the men's department. I do appreciate the nonsexist idea of a guy's restaurant in a fashion store. Nordstrom has several West Coast liberal touches like that--"family" rest rooms, for example, where dads can take their little girls when they need to. But department-store dining has traditionally been the ladies' turf: This is where the "ladies who lunch" cut their teeth. So I stuck with the places they would go--or the places they do go, as it turns out.

An evening visit to the Cafe was predictably lonely, but go in the middle of a weekday and the Garden Court looks like Saturday night at Star Canyon. The host, with that famously friendly Nordstrom attitude, handed us a beeper so we could shop around until a table was available--in 25 minutes, he promised.

For the most part, Nordstrom clothes have all the cutting-edge style of Middle America, which is to say none. And its restaurants are firmly, solidly, stolidly in fuddy-duddy sync with the fashion. Oddly located between Lingerie and Children's Shoes, the Cafe and the Garden Court share an entrance and that friendly host I mentioned. The Cafe has a horsey, Western overlay on its basic hotel-coffee-shop interior: It looks like a place you could find on the exit road of an interstate. Nordstrom's signature piano music seemed to be piped in, or else they just tune the sound system to that particularly Nordstrom-style Muzak. It's modified self-serve: You place your order, and a waitress delivers it.

We tried the Caesar salad, a huge bowl of romaine lettuce dressed as dowdily as could be with flavorless dressing. The "Californian" sandwich was made on airy panini, a flat pseudo-Italian bread that crumbled when you bit it and turned mushy under the sun-dried-tomato pesto meant to moisten the filling of red peppers, onions, havarti cheese, and chopped artichoke hearts. The better sandwich didn't try so hard to be trendy: The "Big D Grill" layered turkey, avocado, tomato, very tough bacon, and Swiss cheese on sourdough bread. Both plates were accessorized with a dill-pickle spear and a frill of purple kale along with a serving of Sunchips. Great slabs of desserts, oily carrot cake and thick chocolate cake, were served straight from the cooler.

The Garden Court is Nordstrom's more-upscale effort. Decorated like a gazebo, a theme we thought we'd left behind in 1972, it's a small room, and when we ate there, it was mostly overflowing with women--new mothers and their offspring, parties of two or three serious shoppers camped out with their bags all around them, and some mother-daughter teams.

This menu tries a little harder, serving entrees and not just sandwiches, salads, and snacks. There are, of course, those particular ingredients peculiar to store dining rooms. Does anyone, anywhere else, serve canned mandarin oranges? Or English-style chutney on sandwiches? Garden Court finds room for the oranges twice, once in a salad and once in a chicken dish.

The New York Steak was nicely flavorful, but chewy and larger than it needed to be for a luncheon steak. Better to serve a smaller, higher-grade cut. The garlic mashed potatoes were bland and grainy, but the steamed vegetables were a surprise to one who's become used to translating "steamed" as meaning "barely but virtuously cooked without any seasoning whatsoever." Some of the carrots and all the broccoli were tender and tasty.

Tortellini was stuffed with a smoked mozzarella that had the whiff of a campfire hot dog, and it was smothered in a thick marinara sauce that could have used more basil to brighten things up. The broiled-chicken-breast sandwich also had bacon and cheese on it, with that chutney mixed into mayonnaise and served on the side. Desserts were marred both by their temperature and by unnecessary and unsophisticated flourishes--frigid Key Lime pie in a soggy chocolate crust with a drizzle of fudge sauce and a lot of whipped cream, for instance, and cold chocolate cake with a checkerboard filling of gluey dark and white chocolate mousse.

Mostly, eating at Nordstrom seemed like shopping there--focused on filling you and clothing you in a serviceable, practical fashion that ignored the fantasy side in favor of the functional and comfortable.

The Zodiac Room at NorthPark Neiman's was almost as crowded as the Garden Court. This is the ugliest room in the recently redesigned store--its color scheme just dull layers of brown over tan with touches of chocolate. Its labyrinthine entrance is reminiscent of a Luby's cafeteria without the planters of fake greenery. Still, once you open the menu, you know you're in a restaurant with some sense of food style. It's not just the spacy typeface and absence of printed dollar signs that clue you. Not even the Iron Horse "Cuvee Neiman Marcus" on the wine list.

Check out the ingredients: couscous, pesto, salsa, goat cheese, apple-smoked bacon--all code for "American-slash-global inventive cuisine." Of course, even here there are mandarin oranges and chutney mayonnaise--how else would you know to charge this on a store card?

In the beginning, Neiman's Zodiac had Helen Corbitt, Stanley Marcus' personally chosen chef de store and a hometown heroine to Dallas cooks, who followed her lead faithfully. Her cooking schools for the Dallas Symphony were popular long after she'd left Neiman's. Classics like poppy-seed dressing are still staples of Dallas entertaining.

Ahead of her time, Corbitt called her style of cooking (emphatically) "American with a continental flavor."--not too far from Alice Waters' idea of American ingredients prepared with French technique, and not far from the philosophy that guides the Zodiac's kitchen now that Neiman's corporate chef is Kevin Garvin, who once ran the kitchen at the Adolphus' French Room a block from Neiman's downtown flagship store. (In this context you do wonder why the menu features California, instead of Dallas, goat cheese.)

Lunch at the Zodiac still begins with Corbitt's signatures: a lovely, complementary, and taste-tickling demitasse of perfectly clear chicken consomme and a basket of hot popovers, big brown bubbles of egg bread served with strawberry butter. (Another Corbitt mainstay, the Duke of Windsor sandwich, is still served in the Mermaid Bar downstairs.) I followed that with a simple chicken-salad sandwich--real ladies' food that you could eat and afterward still feel OK about entering a dressing room--the pristine mixture of white meat, almonds, mayonnaise, and celery piled two-full-inches thick on the bread.

A bearded companion had the lamb chops, grilled till rare and sauced with a vivid pesto of mint and cilantro that leaked nicely into the couscous. Cobb salad was laid out as carefully as a leaded-glass window, with rays of sliced chicken, creamy avocado crescents, a pile of pico de gallo, and peppery jack cheese covering a bed of lettuce; and a low-fat dish of penne pasta and fresh spinach was bathed in a warm dressing of chopped tomatoes, capers, and artichokes.

And desserts were just as good, most especially the so-called Caramel Souffle, actually that sweet antique, floating island. This remarkable treat is reason enough to open a Neiman's account. I can't think of anyplace else that serves floating island right now, and it's exactly the kind of light-tasting, all-American dessert that should be making a comeback along with apple pan dowdy and upside-down cake. The cloudlike meringue was drizzled with caramel filigree and floated on a satiny vanilla-custard sauce.

This is all carefully conceived food, food that could credibly be served for lunch in the city's better restaurants. And, like the best taste-teasing fashion stores that lead the customer's imagination to what they will want while providing what they do want, the Zodiac Room's food is true high style: It looks good, yes, but it'll make you feel good, and that's what you're really shopping for, isn't it?

Nordstrom's Garden Court and Cafe Nordstrom, Galleria, 702-0055. Open daily, 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m.

Neiman's Zodiac Room, NorthPark Center, Park Lane and N. Central Expressway, 363-8311. Open Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Garden Court:
Caesar with Parmesan Lace $6.50
Barbary Chicken Sandwich $7.95
Tortellini Marinara $7.95
Cafe Nordstrom:
Panini Californian $5.95
Big "D" Grill Sandwich $6.50

Zodiac Room:
Grilled Lamb Chops $10.50
Spinach and Penne Pasta Salad $7.



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