Unlike some of my friends, who dread Christmas excess and feel immediately lighter once the burden of pretending to enjoy themselves has passed, I relish the whole deal -- corny music, hokey icons, economic and gustatory excess, et al. I even had a good time doing some last-minute shopping downtown on Dec. 24. (There were a couple of kid saxophone players outside the Baby Gap on Powell who really knew how to swing.) I especially love the hazy, slow-motion, low-expectations week hammocked in between Christmas and New Year's, and this year we got an extra day of recovery on Sunday, Jan. 2. But the corollary is that I experience a letdown immediately after that week, and it was hitting me with full force that Monday. So I suggested to the girls that we treat ourselves to a meal at one of the few remaining downtown bastions of the old-fashioned department store restaurant.
My grandmother, who lived in the Sunset, used to bring me to the corner of Geary and Stockton when it was occupied by the beautiful old City of Paris store (and I. Magnin was in the white marble building across the street that is now Macy's, sigh, and Joseph Magnin was down the street, and Jimmy Stewart was watching Kim Novak try on gray suits a block away at Ransohoff's. But enough of that). The City of Paris was famous for its stained glass dome, which I'd always thought was installed in imitation of the famous dome at the Galeries Lafayette in Paris, except that the City of Paris was built in 1909, and the Lafayette's famous glass-and-steel dome and central art nouveau staircase were built in 1912. (The tea salon at Au Printemps, the equally venerable Parisian department store, has its own belle époque stained glass dome, so perhaps that was the inspiration.)
In any case, when Neiman Marcus bought the store, it carefully dismantled "The Glass Ship," as the dome is called -- all 26,000 pieces of it -- and had it cleaned, restored, and reinstalled. It's best viewed from the restaurant that's now tucked up right underneath it. But we paused on our way upstairs, distracted by tempting cases full of jewelry and glimpses of those designer handbags priced in the thousands of dollars that are familiar to me only from photographs in Vogue and In Style, in which they hang off the arms of celebrities who, one imagines cynically, usually receive them for free. At a strategically located table laden with Jo Malone perfume samples, we tried several sweet scents, all food-related: Grapefruit, Fig and Cassis, Orange Blossom.
When Hiya suggested checking out the shoes, I said, "After," and we took the escalators to the fourth floor, manfully (womanfully?) ignoring the appeal of the racks of clothing so artfully displayed on every level. (It's not by accident that Zola's wonderful novel about the rise of the department store, Au Bonheur des Dames, literally "At the Happiness of Ladies," is variously translated as The Ladies' Delight or The Ladies' Paradise.)
The Rotunda was reopened after a glitzy renovation, all cream and gold, a couple of months ago, but the rest of the fourth floor was still under construction when we arrived, hidden behind immaculate white drapes. We were early enough to be led to the prime location of the place, the tables clinging to the glass wall above Neiman's entrance, with a stunning full view of Union Square. (For comfort, I'd choose the deep semicircular booths ringing the round room, but you can't beat that view, even though I pointed out that it's now sadly dominated by the uninspiring '60s- and '70s-era buildings that house Saks, Tiffany, and the Levi's store on Post; only the structure that has become the Williams-Sonoma flagship suggests what that block once was like.) Joyce took advantage of our vantage to criticize the fashion choices of the shoppers far below.
I was a little stunned when we opened our menus. I used to frequent the Beverly Hills Neiman (well, if you can call one visit a year "frequenting") for a bowl of corn chowder or a chicken pot pie, mostly to assure myself that the place was still offering its glossy, airy, eggy popovers, a soufflélike bread (not unlike a Yorkshire pudding, Joyce pointed out, without the drippings) that has all but disappeared from the dining scene. I was pleased to see, under soups and starters, that "Neiman Marcus tradition includes hot chicken broth, popovers, and strawberry butter," but what stunned me were the prices: The starters escalate quickly from $7.50 (for the soup of the day, which was three-onion) and $9 for a Caesar salad to $13.75 (for lobster spring rolls), $15.50 (for crab cakes), even $90 (for 30 grams of osetra caviar). And the main courses, which start at $15 for an artichoke, green olive, and lemon risotto, quickly arrive at the giddy heights of $29 (for lobster pot pie).
"What are composed salads?" Joyce asked as I tried to compose myself. "I guess they're not tossed," she answered herself, as I nodded in agreement, while we sipped excellent full-flavored chicken broth from demitasse cups, each with a tiny crescent puff pastry posed on its little saucer. "Mmm, chickeny," she said; the quality of the broth suggested that Neiman makes its own, as did the rich, deep flavor of the lobster bisque that I began with. Lobster seems to be a Neiman hallmark, appearing as it does in the spring rolls, the pot pie, and the club sandwich I ordered for my main course, and the creamy bisque resonated with stock made from a lot of lobster shells. Joyce's crab cakes were three fat, marshmallow-shaped pucks playing hide-and-seek on a massive field of sweet-and-sour slaw improved by lots of scallions, with a sauceboat full of unusually light and sweet tartar sauce. Hiya tried the ahi poke, ruddy diced tuna glistening with a sesame-oil-and-soy-sauce dressing bright with minced shallots and ginger, sprinkled with a touch of wasabi tobiko. The "petite salad" it came with was actually another generous field of greens, balanced by a stack of wonton crisps. These starters could easily have served as main courses. The scale of the popovers was huge, too; they seemed nearly as big as our heads.
We continued on to the pan-roasted filet mignon for Joyce, a lovely looking hunk of browned meat sided with Yukon Gold potato and celeriac purée and a wild mushroom ragout that had merged with a lake of roasted garlic and porcini sauce. The steak elicited delight from her, but I, whose memory of a recent stellar C&L cornfed fillet had been joined by an exceptional grass-fed beef tenderloin I enjoyed at Chez Panisse, found the flavor a little wanting, though certainly enhanced by the clever sauce. Hiya's crab Louie, a daily special, was slightly deconstructed: The pile of greens on one side was balanced by an entrancing timbale of the purest, snowiest, best-picked lump Dungeness crabmeat ever. She mostly ate the crab on its own, piling the sweet nuggets onto torn-off bits of popover. I was somewhat disappointed by my lobster club sandwich, having sampled the original, created by Anne Rosenzweig at the Arcadia restaurant in New York (that signature dish inspired the name of her next place, the Lobster Club). There the sandwich was freshly made and the plump lobster meat was still warm and trembling from the butter bath it had recently been removed from; here the shreds of lobster seemed meager for the $23.50 tariff, and the elusive lobster taste was obscured by the fact that the meat was both chilly and resting too near smoked bacon and a shallot mayonnaise. (And the brioche was barely toasted and soggy.)
Still, ingesting the lavish amounts of crab and steak had induced a mellow mood in us. I told the girls about my favorite vanished ladies' lunch spot, the Bullocks Wilshire Tearoom atop a landmark art deco building in Los Angeles, where I ate some of the weirdest food I'd ever seen (including a bizarre sandwich made of layers of ill-assorted fillings between many thin slices of spongy white bread, sliced like a fruitcake and served dribbled with Russian dressing and hard little beads of the worst fish-bait caviar known to man), which right up to the end featured heavily made-up models dressed in the store's fashions, who would sashay up to your table and pirouette slowly while intoning, "This little number of two-toned moire is available for $165.50 in our third-floor Maison du Mode," as all conversation froze and you would attempt to appear interested.
We only managed two desserts, and one -- the biggest crème brûlée I've ever been served, a doll-sized glassy-topped skating rink in a big square bowl -- would have sufficed, especially since it was a stellar version. I was more intrigued by the description of the rich gingerbread cake (wine-poached pears, caramel sauce, and especially its accompaniment of sweet and sour cream) than its actuality, when the two separate creams I'd imagined merged into one, and the whole tasted more austere than rich.
Department store restaurants were originally conceived as rest stops for tired shoppers with low blood sugar, for those seeking a cup of tea and other light refreshment, to keep consumers around and in shape for more consumption for a while longer. For decades they were loss leaders, and some places, like IKEA, still keep food prices low as an extra added attraction. Even though the Rotunda's setting is posh and chef Patricia Windisch is trying hard -- that lobster bisque was terrific, and we really enjoyed the poke, the steak, the crab Louie -- my ears still rang a little from the prices. (There are several dishes -- a burger, a chicken panini, and chicken salads -- available for $16 or less.) But as we walked out past a Christmas tree ornament originally priced at $155 (now 30 percent off), a jacket for $1,635, and shoes for $745, all priced many times higher than what I've ever paid for such items, I realized that, viewed through that multiplier effect, the prices at the restaurant are comparatively gentle. I don't think I've even tried on shoes that cost more than $250, but I paid $30 for a steak just last week.