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Trading the campfire for a bite of luxury

Written by Emmy on 28 September 2011

No checkpoint adventure would be complete without a bit of fine dining. In accordance with such tradition, we had to make a stop at the Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room, the must-eat luxury within Yosemite. The Ahwanhee Hotel, which was built in the 1920s and subsequently declared a national landmark, has long been known for its food and its decor. As an additional fun fact, the hotel in “The Shining” is based upon this Yosemite site.

The Ahwahnee’s upscale dining room has a strict dress code for dinner, one that does not include athletic shorts and hiking boots. We had checked a few days earlier with the hotel’s concierge to ensure that we would be able to meet standards with the clothing we had stashed in the car and so when we rolled up to the Ahwanhee straight from our Hetch Hetchy trip, it was time to class it up. Dorothy saved the day, doubling as a full-size changing room, and once we had maneuvered her into a parking spot in the Ahwahnee’s crowded lot, we were ready.

Looking exponentially better than we had hours earlier, we strolled into the dining room for the 5:30 seating and were given a table right next to the window.

IMG_4419IMG_4421The views to the left and to the right of our table.

Though we were by far the youngest and most casually dressed diners, we started our dinner with fancy grown-up drinks in order to better fit in.

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The menu was overwhelming and filled with delicious-sounding entrees all crafted from relatively local ingredients. We decided to just pick the most outstanding few and share them.

We started with crab cakes, served over an aioli and topped with peppers, and a delightfully-refreshing salad of watermelon, avocado, feta and mint. I have had quite a few crab cakes in my day, and these were easily among the best I have ever had. The crab was so fresh and, save for a few vegetables, was allowed to stand on its own rather than be gooped in some kind of sauce. The whole cake was lightly coated and cooked, permitting the outside to just flake off. The peppers atop the crab cakes resembled pimientos de padrón, an item I have never seen anywhere other than Spain. Despite their jalapeño-like appearance, they are not at all spicy — just flavorful.

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IMG_4432The salad was unbelievable too, but we were pretty preoccupied waxing poetic over the crab cakes.

For our main course, we decided to sample the two specials of the evening. The first was a piece of roast chicken served over, as the waitress described it, a chicken pot pie without the crust. The chicken itself was full of flavor, but what was underneath was even more noteworthy. For lack of a better way to label it, the pot pie insides were comprised of the dark meat from the roast chicken and tons of fresh, local vegetables, beautifully roasted themselves. The whole thing was topped with a giant piece of fresh cornbread, making up for the pie’s lack of crust.

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The second entree was described to us as a piece of pan-seared trout served with a corn flan and topped with lobster in a red pepper sauce. What we were served, we realized after beginning to eagerly dig in, was actually a piece of salmon with the described preparation. (We’re pretty sure the special was supposed to be salmon and the waitress just misspoke. Either way, we stuck with it.) The fish itself was good, though nothing extraordinary. On the other hand, the sides — the lobster and the corn flan — were incredible.

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We looked at a dessert menu, but were far too stuffed to even consider it. The meal was incredible, and if nothing else, allowed us to return to our role as self-appointed food snobs.

Jim Thompson and the Peninsula

Written by Chaz on 17 June 2011

On Sunday, after visiting Wat Arun and having our street picnic, we set out on the Skytrain to downtown Bangkok to visit the house of Jim Thompson. Thompson had been stationed in Thailand in 1945 by the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA, and while there, built a business around exporting Thai silk. Thompson vanished mysteriously without a trace in 1967 while visiting friends in Malaysia. His house, which was carefully designed by Thompson himself and made up of traditional Thai houses brought from around the country, is maintained today as a gallery of the beautiful art and crafts that Thompson amassed during his time here.

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Touring his house felt like traveling back in time, to an era when this country was called Siam. Though Thailand was never colonized, that didn’t prevent Westerners like Thompson, enthralled with Thai culture, from coming in and getting rich. Thompson’s house brought the feeling of that era to life, especially thanks to the tour, which was extensive, thorough and delivered by an incredibly chipper woman.

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We stopped by the cafe that’s been set up on his land for a papaya salad, one of our favorite Thai dishes, and the unexpected extreme spiciness of its dressing nearly blew our heads off. It was still incredibly delicious and fresh, but I was kicking myself that I had to have wine instead of beer with our snack.

We headed further into town to check out the Suan Lum night bazaar, but found that it had been demolished a few months earlier. After a frustratingly long walk back to the Skytrain, we went back to our hotel to get ready for our dinner plans.

Coming off a string of two excellent dinners — one at Blue Elephant and one at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel — we had planned to indulge ourselves one more time at Bangkok’s Peninsula Hotel, which is also reputed to have an excellent Thai restaurant, Thiptara. Unfortunately, it turned out that we had pressed our luck just a bit too much. Though the setting of the dinner, again on the bank of the Chao Phraya River, couldn’t have been nicer, the food did not measure up to the two wonderful meals we had just had.

We started the meal with two phenomenal appetizers: spicy mango salad with crispy sea bass and chicken satay with peanut sauce. The mango salad was state of the art. The fruit was delicious, the dressing perfect and the fish crunchy but still extremely flavorful.

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But the entrees let us down. We might have ordered wrong, but the menu wasn’t that compelling either. We had deep-fried soft shell crab with chili and basil, served with sweet and sour sauce, and a curry with eggplant, chicken and chili that was prepared without coconut milk. The crab was fine but not remarkable. As with a lot of deep-fried food (in my opinion), the taste of the crab meat itself was nothing like it could have been if prepared differently. The curry was almost like a soup — it was much thinner than an average curry, and perhaps as a result, it didn’t taste that much and was actually rather bland.

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All in all, the Peninsula was a disappointing experience, especially for the money. Though our appetizers were great, the restaurant wasn’t able to keep it up for our main course. The cards were absolutely stacked against them, though, since our meal there came after two such phenomenal dinners.

The luxury of street food

Written by Chaz on 16 June 2011

Thanks to an incredibly favorable exchange rate, Emmy and I have had the luxurious privilege of dining in most of Bangkok’s best restaurants. It’s been a real treat, and I’ve had some of the best meals of my life. We’ve also been able to get some really delicious Thai cuisine on the street for just a couple dollars. And though the dining experiences are obviously quite different, it turns out that the entrepreneurs who set up pop-up restaurants on a street corner have a lot in common, food-wise, with the chefs in the city’s finest hotels.

One of our food gurus once wrote that, when eating ethnic food in the U.S., one should order dishes that derive their quality from their recipe, rather from the inherent quality of their composition. The reasons for this are simple: the ingredients that ethnic restaurants in America use — the produce, meat and spices — have trouble competing well with the ingredients that can be had in the native countries of most ethnic cuisines, because most ingredients produced in the U.S. just aren’t as good as those found elsewhere. As a result, when one travels straight to the source, as we have, you can switch back, giving preference to ingredients over recipe when ordering.

One of the interesting consequences of this that we’ve discovered is that it’s relatively easy for street food to be both insanely cheap and extremely delicious. Because the ingredients are so fresh, tasty and inexpensively available, street vendors are able to produce a great mango salad or basil chicken with rudimentary cooking equipment at a very low cost, especially after converting from Thai baht to U.S. dollars.

The difference, then, between street carts and luxury restaurants lies in the quality of their recipes and cooking process, to say nothing of some of the incredible settings in which we’ve been lucky enough to have dinner. To showcase the difference, I’ll look at two of the best meals we had in Bangkok. One was at Sala Rim Nam, the Thai restaurant at Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and one was on a street corner in a part of Bangkok that remains unidentified because we had gotten a bit lost.

IMG_1190Our street picnic came after we had been visiting Wat Arun, a temple across the river from Bangkok’s other well-known temples. We were sort of wandering away from the temple toward some other sights when we spotted a German family being led on a tour by a guide. Since they were going in the same general direction that we had been heading, we followed them. Though we lost them before long, we found ourselves in the middle of a huge street food market, and before we knew it, we were buying various items for lunch from a bunch of different vendors. After stopping by a 7-Eleven to buy a couple waters, a beer and a soda, we plunked down on a random corner, next to a woman selling cell phone charms, and had a feast.

The picnic was fantastic — the betel leaves, in particular, really stood out as a simple but delicious meal made possible by the power of good ingredients. And the excitement of buying such diverse and wonderful food at a street market was great, too. But I thought the pad thai and the spicy tofu — in other words, the dishes that relied on their recipe and cooking — weren’t nearly as dazzling. Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely incredible that such good street food is so widely and cheaply available, but those two dishes weren’t as lip-smackingly good as the ingredient-based ones.

The Oriental was a different story. We arrived a bit late for our reservation — we had just had cocktails at Vertigo Bar, on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel, overlooking the entire city, and we had lost track of time a bit.

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As we walked into the hotel, which overlooks the Chao Phraya River that runs through Bangkok, we found the hotel directory to point the way to the restaurant. The location of Sala Rim Nam? “Across the river,” the directory advised. Could we really have gone to the wrong place?! I didn’t remember reading that the Oriental’s restaurant was anywhere but, well, at the Oriental.

We asked for directions to the restaurant, crossing our fingers that the directory was some kind of mistranslation, but no — the real answer was much more fitting for a luxury hotel. We were directed to the hotel’s river pier, from which the hotel runs boat shuttles throughout the day and night back and forth between the hotel and its restaurant.

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After a quick ferry trip, we were seated at a beautiful table overlooking the river, which is an unfortunate shade of brown during the day and thus only actually attractive after the sun goes down. But the sun had long since gone down, and the setting of our meal couldn’t have been nicer.

After another round of cocktails (they just sounded so good…), we began our meal with an appetizer sampler. Many of our favorite Thai dishes are appetizers, and the idea of a whole platter of little bites sounded delicious. The Oriental managed to beat our expectations by a long shot, serving us fresh crab dumplings, chicken and nut dumplings, prawn fresh rolls and fried mushrooms, replete with a selection of dipping sauces. We also had a papaya salad before moving on to a penang curry and a chili basil chicken for our main course.

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The quality of the ingredients showed through immediately, especially in the crab dumplings and the papaya salad, whose main ingredients couldn’t have tasted more fresh. But the best part of the food came in its elegant and careful preparation, which both highlighted the flavors of the best ingredients and combined them to create an even greater explosion of flavor. The sauce on the penang curry was thick without being dry. The dumplings were tender and flavorful without being soggy. Altogether, the meal absolutely knocked my socks off, and its beautiful setting was just an added bonus.

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The high quality of produce and other ingredients here is absolutely wonderful, and it makes for a wonderful bite on the street. But there’s no substitute for excellent cooking, here or at home. I’m just grateful that we’ve had the opportunity to explore the finer side of things during our time here.