By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
TAMPA — As a little kid, maybe you'd stand in line to see Santa Claus at Marshall Field's in Chicago and then have lunch in the Walnut Room with your grandmother, your good shirt chafing a little at the collar. In New York, women toting their best handbags shopped along the "Ladies' Mile" and then rested their tired but well-heeled dogs at the cafe in Macy's or Neiman Marcus (just about the only places women could dine unescorted by gentleman and not be "unladylike"). In Detroit it was the Hudson's tearoom, in Minneapolis it was Dayton's.
Yes, the shopping mall killed the country's 20th century downtown department stores. But that may not be exactly what killed the department store cafes. We still have department stores in Tampa Bay area malls, but their cafes have all but dried up. Food courts, Starbucks and even nearby upscale restaurants mean there's lots of food to sustain shoppers, but Nordstrom is just about the only store with its own onsite, full-service restaurant.
Right now much of Nordstrom is stripped down to its concrete floors, yellow caution tape keeping shoppers separated from the ongoing renovation. But in April the store revealed its new cafe, Bazille. Replacing the more generic Cafe Bistro, Bazille is lovely, all curvy ceiling lines and warm chocolate browns. Although its interior is decidedly contemporary, there is something that makes one nostalgic for the era of the department store cafe: gentility. It's about crab Louis and crisp-baconed club sandwiches and solicitous servers graciously refilling tall glasses of iced tea.
If it's busy, they will text you when your table is ready. So cutting edge, right? But I have a strong feeling my grandmother would have approved of Bazille.
It doesn't feel quite right to dress like a schlump here. Not when you're eating a lush Dungeness crab and pink shrimp salad on a shiny, buttered brioche ($14.50) or sharing a trio of crisp-edge risotto balls filled with molten fontina and curls of prosciutto ($8.75) sitting on a bed of balsamic-sparked tomato ragout.
It's a salady, ladies-lunch kind of place, but it also seems to draw well from the West Shore business district, dark suits dotting the smart dining room. Look around and you'll see green salads with fresh berries, figs and fluffs of goat cheese, a vanilla vinaigrette and candied almonds adding unusual notes ($12.95), or, every bit as tasty, cilantro lime shrimp salads dotted with corn, tortilla strips and roasted sweet peppers ($13.95).
Named for artist Frédéric Bazille, close friend of impressionists Monet and Manet, Bazille offers more substantial, dinner-appropriate entrees as well, from a lusciously juicy flat iron steak with fries ($18.95, and those fries come with a kalamata-flavored aioli I could put away in serious quantities) to a pan-seared salmon with a kicky gazpacho salsa ($18.95). The only dishes I was ho-hum about were pizzas, the crust of a rustic veggie version ($10.75) too limp at center.
And for my money, the way to end things at Bazille is with vanilla and caramel ice cream-filled cream puffs, a little pitcher of warm, deeply chocolatey sauce arriving alongside ($5.95). If profiteroles don't harken back to the genteel department store cafes of yore, I don't know what does. In fact, I'm sure I had exactly that with my grandmother in the Walnut Room at Marshall Field's after an agonizing few moments on Santa's knee.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.