Once the eager-beaver waitstaff learns to back off, that will be a nearly perfect dining venue," my friend concluded in an e-mail message after we visited the new Dining Room at Neiman Marcus. We'd been swept off our feet by the restaurant's chic décor and by our lovely meal. But the well-meaning service had been clumsy and intrusive. When I returned to the restaurant with a different dining partner, the same overzealous waiter was assigned to our table. His training apparently had not included such basics as replenishing customers' silverware before each new course and then placing it on the proper side of the plate. His grammatical instruction had obviously been just as lacking. "We don't have no specials," he intoned, using a glaring double negative that no doubt had Miss Thistlebottom readying her choicest ruler for a smart thwack.
But my friend -- whose own taste was formed at East Coast boarding schools and refined in New York City restaurants of the Four Seasons and La Caravelle era -- had been right about the perfection of the restaurant in other respects. The place has a retro feminine glamour that calls to mind the days before restaurants were called "stores" and menu items were assigned "price points." (In fact, the prices are retro, too, with every entrée except steak and lobster costing less than $20.) The main dining room is warmed by tranquil shades of ivory. Tall, curved banquettes are upholstered with cushioned squares, and chairs are slender silhouettes of glossy blond wood. The only colorful part of the room is the back wall, painted a soothing aquamarine a few shades paler than a swimming pool. A light sculpture is mounted across the wall. A diffuse glow radiates from its rows of cubes, metamorphosing like a lava lamp from azure and emerald to the burnished hues of a sunset. This shimmering kaleidoscope is refracted by iridescent frosted-glass blocks below the bar, casting silvery shadows about the space. A smaller room, more suitable for daytime meals, has a less enchanting mood and a noticeable echo. Its plate-glass windows overlook the attractively landscaped patio, where patrons dine under white umbrellas. An entrance there allows the restaurant to remain open after the department store has closed.
Like the urbane décor, the elegant menu is a throwback to a time when potatoes, not tables, were turned. To say that a restaurant uses fine ingredients has become a cliché, but at Neiman Marcus the seafood, produce, cheeses and even garnishes are truly top-drawer. Because the raw materials are so good, executive chef Greg Maggi can prepare them simply; his style is one of daring understatement. Take the appetizer described on the menu as a pan-roasted New England diver scallop with butter-braised leeks and white-truffle mashed potatoes. (Diver scallops are so called because the shellfish are hand-harvested from the sea by scuba divers rather than dredged from coastal waters or cultivated by the thousands on aquatic farms -- think of them as free-range bivalves.) Maggi's single scallop is delicately seared but so warm and soft inside that it seems to liquefy on the tongue. It's nestled like a crown jewel on silken mashed potatoes that replicate the scallop's texture.
On our first visit to the restaurant, we ordered wontons filled with fresh Dungeness crabmeat and scallops. The same appetizer was served as a complimentary amuse-bouche on our second visit. The crisp little packages surround a haystack of Asian slaw, and the dish is dressed with a Thai peanut sauce sweet enough to be a syrup. Next we sampled sweet-pea-and-chanterelle risotto, which has the consistency of a thick rice pudding. (That evening, chewy, buttery shiitake mushrooms had been substituted for the trumpet-shaped chanterelles.) Fried shallots and shaved black truffles are scattered atop the risotto. We also enjoyed a composed salad of summer greens with roasted pears, candied walnuts and Maytag blue cheese -- a spicy Iowa farmstead cheese with the pliant texture of fudge. Another salad, brought to the table as an amuse-bouche on both visits, was a chilled mound of feta cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes and marinated hearts of palm tucked into a butterhead-lettuce leaf.
The entrées were just as exciting as the appetizers, though we were surprised that no specials of either were offered. Aside from a New York strip and a hefty pork chop, beauty triumphs over brawn on Maggi's menu. Nevertheless, any skirt-chasing, frozen-pizza-eating, NASCAR-watching alpha male would willingly sup on "Chef Greg's interpretation of a lobster pot pie." This dish is a tower of puff-pastry triangles stacked loosely, like a savory napoleon, and filled with diced carrots and potatoes, lobster meat and a blond "gravy" (sauce Americaine) used to flavor and bind the ingredients. Eggplant lasagna is presented in a torte-shaped individual portion that resembles an upside-down cake. Three portobello caps overlap like pineapple rings above layers of roasted red and green peppers, eggplant and goat cheese. A ring of sweet tomato coulis laps the edges of the dish, and the plate is showered with shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano. "Collection of crustaceans," a brothy stew of vegetables, shrimp, clams, mussels, lobster-claw meat, scallops and andouille sausage, is like a bouillabaisse or a cioppino. The only mediocre entrée we sampled was Maine Atlantic salmon (as distinguished from Maine Pacific salmon, we suppose) with lime cream, a dry piece of fish from which even Maggi couldn't coax much flavor.
Diners who are partial to turtle-brownie sundaes, boysenberry-kiwi crème brûlée and molten-chocolate lava cake may be disappointed by pastry chef Kathryn Kennealy's sophisticated dessert menu. Kennealy's confections do not ooze, dehisce or erupt. And rather than applying puddles of ganache and mountains of whipped cream as eye candy -- the Pamela Anderson school of pastry arts -- Kennealy garnishes her creations with a whimsical yet restrained hand. She uses tasteful flourishes such as sugared pistachios, glittering gold dust and playful tuiles -- thin, crisp cookies that can be molded into fanciful shapes while they're still warm. Caramel peach cobbler, fresh fruit under a pecan-biscuit crust, is baked in small ceramic ramekins and crowned with vanilla-bean ice cream and a curlicue tuile fashioned into concentric circles. Kennealy's extravagant bittersweet-chocolate truffle torte with a moist macaroon-pistachio crust and honey-orange glaze reminded us why restaurants need pastry chefs. (Kennealy should, however, reconsider her reliance on orange zest to flavor all manner of cookies, cakes and sauces.) Bananas Foster trifle cleverly combines an English trifle with a popular Eisenhower-era dessert of sautéed bananas. To make it, Kennealy constructs a layered triangle by alternating strips of spiced sponge cake with a mousselike white-chocolate mascarpone sauce. She gilds the lily by adding banana slices in a slick of brown-sugar-and-rum sauce. This flamboyant confection is like tiramisu that has inherited a large trust fund.
What a shame that a restaurant this distinctive should be known by the decidedly bland moniker "The Dining Room at Neiman Marcus," which lacks the ring of, say, "The Grill at the Ritz-Carlton." The only other name executives considered for the restaurant, we're told, was "Neiman's." Ah, that boundless corporate imagination. Good thing Maggi, Kennealy and their staff don't have to depend on the boardroom for inspiration.