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Shopping Tastefully

[whitespace] The Armani Cafe Rest Stop: The Armani Cafe counter, a sleek island of panini, espresso and desserts, is a sure stop for weary shopping soles.

David Fortin

Browsing for something savory during the holidays

By Michael Stabile

Like its original, if mythic, celebration, Thanksgiving manifests itself as abundance in the midst of famine. While our historical--if not genealogical--ancestors from Plymouth Plantation had blizzards, rocky soil and lack of agricultural skill to contend with, we moderns are faced during the holidays with an even more difficult challenge: finding sustenance in a barren culinary landscape of food courts, underdone pizza and long lines at the Coffee Beanery. Union Square may be ground zero for scarf purchases and gift wrapping, but savory sophistication it lacks.

When I was a child, shopping with my mother in the greater malls of lesser New Jersey, my salvation was most often the patty melt at Friendly's. Served on grilled sourdough bread with sweet sautéed onions and a benign yet comforting slice of American cheese, my medium-rare patty melt was always accompanied by thick, crispy fries and could only be properly followed by a chilled, malted, dollop-of-whipped-cream-on-top strawberry Fribble.

I probably ordered a patty melt, medium rare, every time I ate somewhere that was not McDonald's through the entirety of my teenage shopping years. Eventually my metabolism changed, as did my complexion, and at the age of 23 I found myself instead compelled to order chicken sandwiches, usually grilled poorly and accompanied by the dreaded side salad with its preponderance of cherry tomatoes. Never were shopping and eating the same.

For some reason, I couldn't put myself through the dreary chicken ordeal again this year. Maybe it's because I have been eating so well otherwise, or maybe it's because for the first time all decade I'm financially secure enough (well, sort of) actually to buy gifts for people. I was sure that there must be someplace, aside from the reservation-hungry Farallon or Postrio, at which one could conveniently shop and eat in Union Square.


Where have all the warm alcoholic drinks gone?


My first attempt was the Armani Cafe, a sleek island of panini and espresso moated by the designer labels of the Emporio. I admit that there is nothing in Emporio Armani that I would purchase for a member of my family, or even for a close friend, but on the other hand I adore giving myself a new frock. Amid all the other "selfless" purchases, a $100 tie barely registers on the Visa bill. Unfortunately, spending money at the cafe may be more difficult than in the rest of the store. It's packed. Searching for a free seat is an experience akin to hunting for a parking space in North Beach. Not only are they rarely available, but one must compete with various incarnations of asymmetrical-haircut Euros to get one.

Unfortunately, as in too many dining establishments in San Francisco, the amount of time spent waiting--or in this case, circling like a vulture--for seats is in inverse proportion to the quality of food. Armani clothing may be understated and elegant, but the food at the cafe is merely understated. The "Aromatico" appetizer was a curiously unadorned mixture of bitter greens and a drizzle of oil. Nothing was wrong with it--there was no wilt or dirt or iceberg lettuce--but very little was right with it either. The salad had no depth: not an olive or a bean or a crumble of cheese. Just leaves. I adore radicchio and dandelion and arugula, but there was no counterpoint to their edgy flavor.

The Panini di Tonno was an uninspired tuna sandwich that tasted dry and flat. I won't suggest that the tuna was canned albacore, but it certainly wasn't seared ahi either. Giorgio! You need an aioli or tapenade here, something to introduce the fish to the neighboring bread and tomato. I fared a little better, finally, with an individual pizza that contained tantalizing hints of tarragon and basil and a light sprinkle of ricotta cheese.

The most enjoyable part of the meal was dessert--a delicate strawberry granita and a rich and creamy zabaglione. Suddenly, there was color and flavor and taste. I felt like I had just been liberated from a dreary Italian Pleasantville. So I paid the check and left while I was still ahead. Seventy dollars may be more than most plan to spend at lunch, but it's a lot less than I might otherwise have spent after an hour in Armani.

David Fortin

I love holiday shopping because it's so easy to bury the costs of overindulgence, be they technological, sartorial or epicurean. Neiman Marcus offers the possibility for extravagance in the latter two categories (and in all three, depending on how you assess the Wonder Bra).

The Rotunda, a chain restaurant native to Neiman Marci from King of Prussia to Bal Harbour, offers upscale if standardized meals that rest heavily on the presence of Maine lobster. For the $15 to $24 that a Rotunda entree costs, one could do much better at one of the velvet-roped restaurants that flank Union Square, but no place is better at fusing accessibility, holiday cheer and cuisine (albeit circa 1982) than the Rotunda. Every meal, whether you've ordered a full seafood Cobb salad or are sharing a plate of baked Brie, starts with a small dish, not much bigger than a finger bowl, of chicken stock. It's strong, clear and delicious.

Soon after, complimentary popovers, steaming hot and eggy, arrive with Neiman Marcus' signature strawberry butter. The combination may not cure a cold but it does a wonderful job on winter malaise. A simple appetizer, such as the smoked salmon with caviar, is a perfect choice at the Rotunda. It's as light and airy as the dining room and won't weigh you down. At less than $10, it won't weigh down your bank account either.

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From the December 7-20, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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