Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Rotunda in Neiman Marcus

For generations of Sacramentans, one highlight of the holiday season is a day trip to San Francisco for shopping, dining and sightseeing. The ritual is so popular that for years The Bee’s Travel section produced a seasonal section titled “Holiday By the Bay,” which toured readers through San Francisco in its winter-wonderland mode.

We headed out Sunday for a waltz around Union Square (the “heartbeat of San Francisco”) and to experience a holiday tradition within the “let’s go to S.F.” tradition. That would be lunch at the elegant Rotunda restaurant, on the fourth floor of the ultra-ritzy Neiman Marcus department store.

“It’s such a tradition that people start making reservations in the summer,” said Rotunda assistant manager Michelle Macis. “We’re now booked Thursdays through Sundays until the end of the year, but we encourage people to come in and leave their names at the desk. We have a texting system, so if a table comes up, we can message them. We try really hard to get everyone in.” For a reservation, the first place to start is where we did,

The Rotunda isn’t the sole choice for lunch, though. As fallbacks, consider the Oak Room at the grande dame St. Francis Hotel, 335 Powell St., (800)937-8461,; or the more causal Mocca, 175 Maiden Lane, (415)956-1188; or Emporio Rulli, 333 Post St., (415)433-1122, Or look for a hot dog cart on a street corner.

We parked in a labyrinthine garage near the 1.5million-square-foot Westfield San Francisco Center on Market Street and played tourists on the way to lunch. The ritzy department stores are colorfully decked out and worth a wander – Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Macy’s.

On display inside the St. Francis is the 1,300-pound, 12-foot-tall Sugar Castle, created by executive pastry chef Jean-Francois Houdrein. The confection resembles a French chateau overlooking a detailed medieval village.

We cruised the menu, which conscientiously lists nutritional values for most dishes, and which can cause sticker shock ($8 to $28). But consider the context: The department store chain is famous for its designer-name, super-pricey merchandise, and this branch is in an exclusive shopping district in one of the world’s most expensive cities. But make no mistake: The Rotunda may be conjoined to the Neiman Marcus brand, but it’s a top restaurant that stands on its own, with service (and views) as good as it comes.

For openers, the amuse-bouche (“mouth amuser”) of intense chicken stock warmed us up in time for the Rotunda’s signature popovers, hollow rolls made from egg batter and served with strawberry-infused butter.

Next were the best egg rolls we’ve had, crisp shells filled with Maine lobster, noodles, mushrooms and bean sprouts, with a mini-ramekin of sweet-hot chili sauce for dipping.

We went more traditional with a club sandwich of maple-cured turkey, cheese, avocado, crisp bacon, lettuce and tomato on crunchy toast (two slices, not three), with a ramekin of blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and kiwi. Being in San Francisco, we added a fresh-tasting Dungeness crab and prawn Louie with romaine and iceberg lettuces, boiled egg, avocado, tomato, cucumber and dressing.

For more Union Square holiday activities, special events and tips on getting around:

Filling up at bargain price

Closer to home, two lunch pals and I dropped by Fresh Med for its bargain buffet ($6). In stainless-steel chafing pans were two chicken dishes and four vegetable dishes, plus salad and rice pudding in chilled plastic containers.

We spooned heaps of basmati rice onto our plates, and topped the mounds with the spicy chicken medleys, with sides of roasted garbanzo beans in sauce, sautéed vegetables (broccoli, carrot, squash, bell pepper, onion, potato) and rather plain cooked spinach. We topped it all with two house-made sauces, one hot and one cooling. We were hungry and the food was tasty enough, so two of us returned for seconds.

We found more interesting fare on the menu – steaming, well-seasoned lentil soup with layers of flavors; crunchy falafel (spiced garbanzo and fava beans and vegetables, ground together and fried); and hummus (a paste of garbanzo beans with garlic, lemon, olive oil and sesame paste) with pita bread.

One house specialty is delicious, made-to-order (as are most of the dishes) eggplant with a sauce of mayonnaise, jalapeño and habanero peppers, cilantro, tomato, herbs, spices and tzatziki sauce (yogurt, garlic and cucumbers).

“The buffet is Indian, Pakistani and Afghan, and the menu is Mediterranean,” said co-owner Ray Barakat, who is from Palestine. His wife and business partner, Zainab Barakat, is from Afghanistan. They both do the cooking.

Fresh Med, 1120 Fulton Ave., Sacramento; (916)486-1140,