Cafe Reviews

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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.

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Howard Seftel