By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It was one of those rare times that I took myself to lunch at a cost nearing what I’d pay for dinner in a moderately priced restaurant — $27 plus tip, to be exact.
For at least two decades I’ve heard from shoppers with loose purse strings about Nordstrom’s lovely third-floor restaurant, Marketplace Cafe, and its renowned tomato-basil soup, in particular.
My preconception of the place being filled with gaggles of high-society women purchasing designer outfits and jewelry for their next charity ball was a little off base.
I learned later they mostly flock a few doors down at The Zodiac in Neiman Marcus, which is even pricier than dining at Nordie’s.
The restaurant was bustling with all sorts of people, from young and mature to casual and smartly dressed. Small babies in strollers comprised a good portion of the stately dining room as well, although tattooed hipsters were in short supply.
Customers are greeted by freshly plated displays of the menu items and weekly specials in what appears to be a cafeteria. But soup is the only dish served from the line, which ends at a few cash registers and soda machines that seem out of place against the restaurant’s upscale aesthetics.
As you move along with your tray while deciding on pretty salads, sandwiches and entrees, a bill and ticket number is issued. Your choices are made to order and then delivered to your table, at which point full service takes effect should you require a drink refill, a glass of wine or beer, a condiment or dessert.
From my two-top table and well-cushioned chair, I started with a cup of the tomato soup while awaiting an order of penne Bolognese.
Sitting at arm’s length to my left was an employee of the store’s cosmetics department, a petite 30-something woman also sipping the soup. With a glass of club soda parked alongside, she revealed it’s her go-to lunch.
Her soup was loaded with basil. Mine not so much until she recommended I ask the waiter for extra. I did, and within moments a chiffonade of the herb arrived in a ramekin, providing the necessary sweetness to offset the soup’s initial tartness.
Good stuff, especially with the Parmesan-topped crostini on top. But would I consider it the Cadillac of tomato soups? Not really, as I prefer milkier, less-acidic versions.
The penne was dressed in a creamy, luxurious red sauce that would require three times more meat to qualify it as Bolognese.
The noodles were instead strewn sparingly with lean, spicy sausage although I knew this already when viewing the dish on display and I wasn’t disappointed with the outcome.
By the time I finished the pasta, my chatty dining neighbor had departed and another young woman seized the quickly bussed table with a couple of shopping bags in tow. She too ordered the soup along with a fabulous-looking nicoise salad crowned with a hunk of wild salmon.
I debated adding to my meal either the tempting grilled artichoke I saw glistening in the order line as a chef’s special or a slice of tall lemon-coconut cake from the dessert section.
I chose the latter and reveled in every layer of lemony curd without leaving behind a smear of the white, fluffy frosting speckled with sweet, dried coconut flakes. Seldom do I eat dessert with such gusto.
I also learned during my visit that a freshly built store with a full-service restaurant is opening Oct. 12 in an added wing of University Town Center on La Jolla Village Drive.
It will replace the existing location within the mall, and give me time to save up for another spendy lunch — or maybe dinner with wine if I’m feeling compulsive.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.