First Call: Stick With the Soup at Neiman Marcus

The Atmosphere: Neiman Marcus sells a $6,400 tote bag. Located on the second floor, Mariposa is the cafe where people in the market for such a thing are supposed to stop for a nibble and a drink. It is also mostly empty. Apparently the $6,400-tote-bag market is a little thin these days.The Barkeep: Russell Dunne is an enthusiastic rookie. Normally a server at Mariposa, he recently started taking bar shifts. Very eager to please, Dunne declares "I know just what to do!" upon hearing the First Call rules. And then proceeds to get out a recipe guide.The Drink: "Um, it's supposed to be what you drink," I say. Presumably one knows how to make one's favorite drink. But Dunne persists, finally locating the cocktail: a Mariposa. "This is something I've been wanting to try," he explains. "It has no connection [to the cafe] other than the fact that I noticed it in there and I've been wanting to make it."Out comes a glass, ice, fruit juices, rum, brandy, and grenadine. Shaking it up, Dunne confesses that, like many a barkeep, what he really drinks is a shot and a beer. He garnishes the pinkish-orange concoction with a lemon and a cherry.The Verdict: It's awfully weak. I try to hide my disappointment, but Dunne instantly picks up on it, a good trait if he's to be successful in the drink-slinging business. He takes a sip from the residue in the cocktail shaker. "That's terrible," he observes (and it is). "Can I take this back?"He whisks it away. "Let's do a gin martini," he says. "When I drink spirits, I drink gin."In truth, the martini isn't all that much better. The flavor is fine and the gin/vermouth proportion ideal, but the ice is just too soft and melts quickly, making it watery. But that's not what matters now. What's important is the little cup of chicken broth and cheese biscuit Dunne laid in front of me while I waited for the second cocktail.It turns out that before it went all Manhattan hoity-toity, Neiman Marcus was a Dallas department store. The cafe there, called the Zodiac, had consistently long lines of hungry patrons waiting for a bite to eat. In the mid-'50s, a woman named Helen Corbitt came up with a chicken-soup stock that could be served with a pastry to the customers waiting in line.Neiman Marcus still uses the same recipe and keeps a coffeepot filled with the delicious liquid behind the bar. With someone as eager as Dunne, the cocktails will improve, but even if they don't, who cares? Bartender, get me another shot of that soup!

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