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"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.)
San Francisco, CA 94108
Region: Union Square/ Financial District
Ahi poke $14.50
Crab Louie $28.50
Filet mignon $29
Crème brûlée $8
Open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.
Muni: 30, 38, 45
Noise level: low to moderate
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.
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