Saturday, January 23, 2010

Neiman's Cafe

Neiman Marcus has always held a special allure to me. I grew up knowing about it because of the Neiman relatives on my dad's side of the family (see 'Bagels from My Bubba' for that story). Since we didn't have a Neiman Marcus in Riverside where I grew up, it remained remote and intangible in my mind. But ever since moving to the Bay Area I've been able to understand this part of my family's history a bit better by going to the Neiman Marcus store at the nearby Stanford Shopping Center.

Neiman Marcus was co-founded over a hundred years ago by my grandfather Arnold Neiman's uncle, named Abraham Lincoln Neiman.  Known as Al, he started up 'the store' with his wife, Carrie Marcus. Needless to say, the store grew into a huge retail success from its humble Dallas beginnings. Sadly, Al Neiman died penniless and without family, his only possession a cuff link in an old cigar box.

Recently my husband and I had lunch at the Neiman Marcus Cafe on the third floor of the store at the Stanford Shopping Center. Tucked away from the perfume-scented first floor and racks of designer clothing on the second floor, the cafe offers a quiet, refined refuge from the hustle and bustle below. Mostly a place for ladies who lunch, the cafe features sit-down service with a traditional, tasteful menu. Their signature appetizers arrived quickly, light-as-air popovers with sweet strawberry butter, along with a little cup of chicken consomme.

I ordered a salad plate with Mandarin orange souffle, chicken almond salad, fruit cup, and banana bread muffin with poppy seed dressing. It made for a flavorful and satisfying combination of textures and flavors, and the poppy seed dressing tasted surprisingly good with the fruit salad. I ordered coffee for my beverage.

My husband ordered a more substantial lunch, a burger with the fixings (including bacon) and some wonderfully thin and crisp fries. We both felt sated, not too full and not wanting dessert.

On a separate lunch visit with my daughters, we all enjoyed our meals just as much. I had the Asian shrimp salad with edamame, Napa cabbage, cashews, and a delightful sesame ginger dressing, a winning combination of savory, crunchy, soft, sweet, and a bit of spiciness. It's one of those salads both nutritious and completely satisfying to the taste buds and stomach. My older daughter had split pea soup with a triple grilled cheese sandwich that she ate hungrily. My younger daughter ordered the chicken cheese sandwich with sweet potato fries, and ate it quickly with little comment, a sure sign that she enjoyed it.

As we descended from the cafe on the shiny escalator and emerged outside to the shopping center's open-air plaza, my husband and I left nourished, satisfied, and I a little wistful for the famous relative I never knew. I don't know if Al Neiman ever dined at a Neiman's Cafe, and if it left a sweet or bitter taste in his mouth, but I hope that he always felt proud of what he had helped to create.

While some in the food blogging community would object to copying a recipe word for word from another source, I present here in memory of Al Neiman a popover recipe from the cookbook 'Pure & Simple: An InCircle Cookbook from Neiman Marcus,' now out of print but available used on Amazon.

"Perfect Popovers
Contributed by Neiman Marcus customer Lana Poynor from La Jolla, CA

I remember, as a little girl, going to Neiman Marcus for lunch with my mother and loving the warm popovers they brought with the meal. They always make me think of Neimans and all the fun we have there!

3 eggs
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons oil
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat over to 400 degrees. Beat eggs, milk, and oil together. Sift flour and salt over the egg mixture and beat until smooth. Fill 6 popover cups 3/4 full. Bake 30 minutes; reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake 15 minutes. Makes 6. Serve with strawberry butter."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

If It's Good Enough For The President, It's Good Enough For You

President Obama hosted his first official State Dinner at the White House on November 24, 2009.  The dinner honored His Excellency Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of the Republic of India. The event is most well-known for the infamous Salahi couple who gate-crashed the party, but of course there was much more to the evening than the unusual security breach.

Even though the State Dinner was held at the White House, there is a Bay Area connection. One of the wines served at the event was produced by Modus Operandi Cellars winery based in Napa Valley. We received a lovely bottle of 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from my sister-in-law Cecille Taylor, who is an ophthalmologist in Sacramento. One of her patients is Robert Rogel, owner of the winery. Along with a bottle of the wine, Cecille sent us a copy of the State Dinner program. It includes some interesting facts:

- "The first State Dinner for a foreign head of state was held by President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant on December 12, 1874 for King David Kalakaua of Hawaii."
- The Obamas' first State Dinner was held under a tent on the South Lawn of the White House. The decor reflected a garden theme, with green and sustainable elements.
- Colors included apple green table linens and deep purple flower arrangements, paying homage to the state bird of India, the Indian Peacock.
- "Mrs. Obama worked with Guest Chef Marcus Samuelsson and the White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford and her team to create a menu that reflects the best of American cuisine, continues this White House's commitment to serving fresh, sustainable and regional food, and honors the culinary excellence and flavors that are present in Indian cuisine. Herbs and lettuces are harvested from the White House Kitchen Garden."
- Entertainment included performances by Jennifer Hudson, the National Symphony Orchestra with Marvin Hamlisch conducting, and the United States Marine Band.

My husband and I tried the Modus Operandi Sauvignon Blanc and quite enjoyed its light, slightly fruity taste. It went down easily with its crisp, clean flavor, and would go well with anything on the lighter side, including the salad and vegetables it was paired with for the State Dinner. Here is the delicious sounding menu from the event.

Dinner Menu:

Potato and Eggplant Salad
White House Arugula with Onion Seed Vinaigrette
2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Modus Operandi, Napa Valley, California

Red Lentil Soup with Fresh Cheese
2006 Riesling, Brooks 'Ara', Wilamette Valley, Oregon

Roasted Potato Dumplings with Tomato Chutney
Chick Peas and Okra


Green Curry Prawns
Caramelized Salsify with Smoked Collard Greens


Coconut Aged Basmati
2007 Granache, Beckmen Vineyards, Santa Ynez, California

Pumpkin Pie Tart
Pear Tatin
Whipped Cream and Caramel Sauce
Sparkling Chardonnay, Thibaut Janisson Brut, Monticello, Virginia

Petits Fours and Coffee
Cashew Brittle
Pecan Pralines
Passion Fruit and Vanilla Gelees
Chocolate-Dipped Fruit

I think a restaurant should replicate this menu and offer it as a special meal. I would be very interested in eating it and think many others would also be intrigued. As Cecille so succinctly put it when she sent us the wine, "If it's good enough for the President, it's good enough for you!"

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ishiyaki Bibimba

Repeat after me: ishiyaki bibimba, ishiyaki bibimba, ishiyaki bibimba. Once you've memorized this mantra and eaten this Japanese comfort food, you'll feel at peace and all will be right with the world.

In Juban Restaurant's verbiage, this dish is described as, "sizzling rice cooked in a clay bowl topped with seasoned vegetables, beef, and fried egg. Served with spicy chili pepper paste (gochujang)."  That straightforward description doesn't do this dish justice, however, and its modest looks don't convey its complex and enlightened flavor. To me, ishiyaki bibimba is a dish worth savoring for every last morsel of crispy rice, for every drop of the delectable chili pepper paste, for the combination of flavors in the rice, beef, spinach, bean sprouts, and bits of fried egg.  The egg comes served triumphantly on top of the dish, glistening, and then you or the waitress stir it into the rest of the magical concoction until it's thoroughly combined.

This dish is a perfect example of the savory umami flavor, one of the five basic tastes sensed by the human tongue.  Considered a fundamental taste in Asian cooking, umami is most commonly found in the flavors of beef, mushrooms, soy sauce, some cheeses, and miso. The variety of textures too makes this dish a delight: the crispy, soft rice combines nicely with the chewy bits of beef, firm spinach greens, slightly crunchy bean sprouts, and creamy egg. Every bite is different, every bite is divine. Be careful of the clay pot because it really is hot. If you let the dish rest for a while in it, then the rice on the bottom turns crispy and chewy, just the way I like it. It's usually a bit too much food for me, but my daughter always asks to share so no food is left over.

That's not all that Juban has to offer. It's a Japanese restaurant with a Korean BBQ flair, one with a grill built into the table so you get to cook most of the meal. We usually order beef short ribs, chicken, asparagus, and potatoes with butter to cook. Even the kids get in on the action, using the tongs to cook the meat to their liking. Juban also has delicious salads, especially the lettuce cucumber salad with miso dressing. They have a nice egg drop soup, and offer an assortment of mochi ice cream flavors including coffee, strawberry, green tea, and mango, although it's less expensive to buy the mochi ice cream at Trader Joe's. The service is always efficient and friendly, but you need to ask for forks if anyone in your group isn't adept enough with chopsticks. It's one of the rare restaurants where all five in our family leave happy and content. Give it a try, and remember the mantra: ishiyaki bibimba.