Today's report: The First Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims were on the verge of starvation. The dreadful winter of 1620-21 had wiped out nearly half the Plymouth settlement. One more bad harvest, and the remaining colonists might have perished or been forced to abandon their New World refuge.
Squanto, a friendly Patuxet Indian, kept the colony alive. First, he arranged a peace treaty with the local Wampanoag tribe. Then he showed the famished Pilgrims where to hunt and fish, and how to plant corn.
In the summer of 1621, the colony enjoyed a bumper harvest. So a grateful Governor William Bradford decreed July 30, 1621, a day of Thanksgiving, a time for feasting and prayer.
The Pilgrim womenfolk prepared an elaborate meal. Sources tell us they roasted wild turkey, venison and all manner of fowl, and served them with succotash, corn meal bread and nuts.
The sources, however, do not tell us if the ladies spent the next day shopping at the Plymouth Rock Mall.
They probably did. That's because the day after Thanksgiving is traditionally the biggest retail day of the year, the kickoff to an orgy of spending that culminates on Christmas Eve.
Now, normally, you'd have as much chance of luring me to a department store as you would enticing J.D. Salinger to the Jerry Springer Show. Once I pass through the door, I can stay calm and lucid for maybe 30 seconds. During this brief interval, I feel like the eunuch in the harem--I know there's something here getting people all excited, but I can't figure out what it is. Then my shopping phobia shifts into high gear. The symptoms--heavy sweating, manic anxiety and an overwhelming urge to flee--are exactly the same as those I experienced during root-canal surgery.
But recently, I forced myself to go to Scottsdale Fashion Square, where two of the Valley's toniest temples of conspicuous consumption, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, conduct services. No, I didn't go to shop. My idea of consumption is about what goes into my body, not what I wear over it. I went to eat.
At some point during the holiday shopping frenzy, I figure, just about everyone in town will stop in and poke around these two stores. And most everyone will need some down time for refueling. Cagily, each department store has set up its own in-house dining room, aiming to keep customers from straying elsewhere. Is the fare good enough to do the job? I wondered.
When I stepped into Cafe Nordstrom and the NM Cafe, however, I almost lost sight of my original purpose. That's because the female-male ratio in both places is approximately a bejillion to one. Hey, guys, forget about meeting women through church, work, volunteer groups or 1-900 numbers. These two restaurants carry the complete line. Three sure-fire conversation-starters: 1) "Is that a new Donna Karan you're wearing?" 2) "Excuse me for staring, but I just love your shoes." 3) "Can you tell me if they accept American Express Platinum Cards here?"
At Cafe Nordstrom, there are other things to look at besides well-heeled Nordstrom-bag ladies. The full-service, sit-down restaurant (there's a cafeteria area, as well) features a trio of wood-framed mirrors and abstract art hanging from the walls, art-deco-like chandeliers suspended from the ceiling and decorative oil bottles lined along the shelves. The place reminds me of the kind of restaurant you see in world-class museums. And that's not too surprising, considering both are designed for the same purpose: to help patrons gather enough energy to get back to the business at hand, whether storming the galleries or rummaging the racks.
Cafe Nordstrom seems to be a hit. Show up at noon, especially this time of year, and you'll be lucky to get a table by 1:30. If you're determined to eat here during prime lunch hours, get to the hostess station between 11 and 11:30, put your name in and nab a beeper. You'll have time to get in an hour's more shopping before your beeper goes off, summoning you back.
What's keeping customers here, and out of the dozens of other restaurants at Fashion Square? It's certainly not the bread, a mushy loaf, with no charm or character.
But once you order, Cafe Nordstrom does a pretty good job of keeping your mind off the store's $80 ties, $110 shirts and $200 shoes. (The menu, incidentally, is the same at lunch and dinner.) If you're lucky, you'll come on a day when the soup of the day is the spunky tomato basil. Creamy turkey rice is another decent broth, punched up with smoked turkey and wild rice.
The ladies-who-shop-and-lunch crowd will probably be drawn to the salads. Just about every table had a Chinese chicken salad on it, and why not? It's a nice mix of fresh greens, barbecued chicken breast, crispy noodles and a few veggie odds and ends. They're all held together by a terrific sesame ginger vinaigrette--not too sweet, not too heavy and not too oily.
The spicy Thai shrimp salad isn't nearly as well-crafted. It's just a mound of chilled noodles flecked with peanuts, accompanied by bean sprouts, a touch of red pepper and bits of chopped-up shrimp, all tossed in a bland peanut dressing. It's heavy and dull, not the adjectives that should spring to mind when you eat a salad.
Sandwiches don't have much in the way of heft, but the quality is there. Smoked turkey comes on a multigrain loaf, perked up with tomato, Swiss cheese and a welcome slice of avocado. The fajita panini feature a thimbleful of chicken, sauteed peppers and onions, a touch of guacamole and a smear of jalapeno cream cheese with no jalapeno bite. The best thing about the sandwiches may be the side of homemade potato chips. They're hot, crisp and addicting.
Pasta is a mixed bag. Portabella ravioli is outstanding, as good as you'll find in a fine Italian restaurant. The ravioli pouches are light and delicate, and lusciously stuffed with mushrooms and cheese. A garnish of wild mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes, and a garlicky cream sauce deliver an additional boost. Gnocchi, though, aren't in the same league. These leaden potato-flour dumplings sink to your stomach like anvils. And while the pesto sauce shows some flair, the shavings of tasteless Parmesan cheese don't.
Roast chicken is one of the kitchen's more successful entrees. It's a deliciously moist quarter-bird, fragrantly scented with rosemary and garlic, paired with roasted red potatoes, asparagus and baby carrots. If you've got more shopping to do, it's the perfect choice: It fills you up, without slowing you down.
Desserts will fill you up and slow you down, but I had no problem with that. That's because Cafe Nordstrom imports cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory, a California outfit that makes the best cheesecake west of the Mississippi. There's also a marvelous chocolate cake, rich and fudgy, just right for sharing. And if you're soloing, consider the Nordstrom cookie, a big, square slab crammed with chocolate chips and marshmallow.
A meal here will set you back about $10 or $15. Most customers will think it's a bargain. After all, that's less than the sales tax they'll pay on most Nordstrom merchandise.
The NM Cafe, 6900 East Camelback (Neiman Marcus at Scottsdale Fashion Square), Scottsdale, 990-2100. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The NM Cafe doesn't have Cafe Nordstrom's pizzazz--no linen napkins, no design flair. Tucked away behind the Men's Clothing section, it looks pretty much like a coffee shop. Hungry shoppers can drop their bags and do lunch on the covered terrace, an undecorated expanse from which they can watch and hear Camelback Road traffic whiz by. Or they can stretch out on a tall bar chair and take a load off at the counter.
The kitchen here doesn't do much culinary stretching. The midday fare is strictly basic: soup, salads and sandwiches. And most of it is basically dull.
There is, however, one exception. As soon as you sit down, a server brings over a piping hot popover and a scoop of strawberry butter. Eat up--it's the NM Cafe's only highlight.
There's certainly nothing memorable about the soups. Tortilla soup, an every-day menu option, tastes like canned cream of tomato stocked with bits of chicken, potato and tortilla strips. Cream of mushroom, an occasional special, has a bit more spirit, enlivened by a sprinkling of wild fungi. Still, what I remember most about these soups is the price tag, a whopping four bucks for a cup.
Salads don't show much effort. The most imaginative thing about the Baja chicken salad is the name. What this snoozy mix of greens, chicken breast, crumbled feta and red pepper dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette has to do with Mexico is beyond my powers of imagination. I also can't fathom what gives the "signature" house chicken salad its signature--it's exactly like every other scoop of chicken salad you've ever tasted. However, it does come with what the menu fancifully describes as an "orange souffle." Actually, it's a mold of gelatinous custard, with mandarin orange slices suspended within. Yikes. There's also nothing noteworthy about the Cobb salad, a lackluster combination of greens, chicken and hard-boiled egg, with a smidgen of bacon and blue cheese.
Sandwiches are a better option. The portabella mushroom sandwich comes on grilled seven-grain bread, and features a supporting cast of roasted veggies, jack cheese and red onion marmalade. The Duke of Windsor sandwich (The Duke of Windsor? Who names these dishes?) brings together smoked turkey, cheese and a zesty pineapple chutney on grilled egg bread. But resist any urge to order the assortment of tea sandwiches, identified as an "NM classic." They're classic, all right--classically bad: four puny, variously filled, bite-size crusts of no distinction, which leave you both hungry and dissatisfied at the same time.
Worried about trying on that size 3 dress after dessert? Don't worry, the sweets here are easy to forgo. The highly resistible strawberry shortcake is made with nondescript angel-food cake, and glopped with nonfat frozen vanilla yogurt. And if you order the homemade brownie, make sure you're part of a large group. It's a five-inch-by-five-inch wedge, drizzled with chocolate sauce--"as big as a kitchen tile," noted one of my lady friends. But it's merely sweet, not fudgy or chocolatey.
Over the next few weeks, most folks will be shopping 'til they drop. But there's no reason for anyone to drop in to the NM Cafe.
Tomato basil soup
The NM Cafe:
Baja chicken salad
Portabella mushroom sandwich