The Zodiac has survived for six decades. Is it really about the chicken salad?
by LESLIE MINORA
photographs by CARTER ROSE
When the elevator doors part on the sixth floor of the Neiman Marcus in downtown Dallas, they reveal an expansive turquoise dining room with white tablecloths, an antidote to the bustle of the streets below.
Recently, I visited for lunch with a dear friend. As we settled into the leather dining chairs, our waiter served us each a demitasse of deeply flavorful, homemade broth. What is it about chicken broth that instantly lowers shoulders and invites a deep breath?
At the Zodiac, the original Neiman Marcus restaurant in the company’s oldest location, meals have begun that way for well over six decades. The Zodiac is not the type of place where you count the minutes before you must return to work. That would be like rushing through a spa treatment. You’ll finish when you’re through, and you’ll be better off for it. Since its opening in 1953, the Zodiac has been the quintessential spot for ladies who lunch. The dining room is filled with a mix of regulars who need not look at a menu and others who set out for a special midday outing. More recently, it has also become a destination for downtown businesspeople.
The overall experience traces its roots to Helen Corbitt, a New York–born spitfire of a chef hired in 1955 to run the kitchen. Stanley Marcus called her “the Balenciaga of food,” and several of Corbitt’s touches live on, including that chicken broth. But maintaining tradition while keeping up with the times is a constant balance — and no one knows that more than Kevin Garvin. When the Neiman Marcus vice president of food services — Garvin oversees the company’s myriad restaurants and cafes — was hired in 1994, both his role and his instinct were to modernize. He began tweaking dining rooms and dishes. Customers balked. Certain people had eaten the same chicken salad for more than 50 years; of course he shouldn’t disturb such loyalty. Instead, Garvin had to figure out which recipes he must preserve. “I needed to understand the tradition really quickly,” he says, “in order to be successful. Once we all understood what was sacred, then it was easy.” After firmly securing the classics, Garvin added items such as the Gotham Salad (chicken, ham, gruyère, beets, bacon and Thousand Island dressing) and crab cake sliders. He also collaborated with the Zodiac chef to create the health-conscious Go Figure salads and entrées.
On the afternoon my friend and I visited for lunch, our waiter, an older man wearing a white jacket, placed a popover on each of our bread plates. The globes of crisp golden dough, hollow and tender on the inside, were still warm. They, too, are Corbitt’s handiwork. At the Zodiac, the sacred list includes the chicken broth, popovers and an orange “soufflé” with chicken salad. However dated, these recipes must not be significantly altered. Over the years, Garvin has gone beyond preserving these dishes to celebrating them. He is working on his third Neiman Marcus cookbook, which will focus on top-selling recipes both traditional and new. It’ll be released in October 2014.
In 1999, Garvin hired Anita Hirsch as the corporate executive chef and to lead the Zodiac kitchen. While Corbitt was a larger-than-life woman known to be a tyrant in the kitchen, Hirsch is more even-keeled. Garvin explained the traditions to her. She could be creative with the menu and specials — hence her grilled shrimp salad with a light Greek vinaigrette and her grilled cheese sandwich with tomato jam — but not with the sacred dishes. Ever.
At the Zodiac, it is impossible to overestimate the values of consistency and longevity. In the kitchen, popover pans seasoned by hundreds of previous batches have been blackened by use. The 375 F mark on the oven has the word pop written in marker next to it. The process is a science: Turn the oven to pop, bake for 30 to 35 minutes and out come the perfect domes that have multiplied in size and risen from the tray.
While the popovers baked on a recent morning, a longtime kitchen employee named Esmerida stood in front of a tub full of chopped chicken breast. She has been making Corbitt’s original chicken salad for 20 years and knows the finished product by its taste and consistency. First, she sprinkled the chicken with white pepper, salt, apple-cider vinegar and celery. Then she poured heavy cream over the mixture, spooned mayonnaise on top and stirred it together. It’s salty, crunchy, creamy and will stick to your ribs — but on the plate, it’s deceivingly dainty. The chicken salad is served alongside the restaurant’s famous Mandarin Orange Soufflé. The Zodiac’s so-called soufflé is not a cake but a mixture made with gelatin and set in a mold.
It stands at attention on a radicchio leaf and is flanked by a cup of chicken salad, a small cup of fruit, poppy seed dressing and a petite muffin. Hirsch remembers her reaction when she first started and saw the dish. “I was, like, ‘Dear God, what is this?’” she says with a hearty laugh. She has since come to respect it. “It makes people happy, and that’s why they come here.”
My friend and I ordered a salad with slices of ahi tuna arranged in overlapping rectangles — art on a plate — and a salmon salad with a well-rounded mix of farro, goat cheese, almonds and kale. With glasses of crisp white wine and plenty of time to chat, it became the perfect afternoon. Our waiter asked if we were enjoying ourselves, though he knew the answer.