Eat @ Joe's


By F.O. Mann

September 15, 2005 -- We're in one of those moments of business-travel time when hotel dining rooms are trendy again.

The big, full-service hotel chains are all trying to develop a "dining concept" that can be duplicated at their properties from coast-to-coast. Grand-dame hotels in cities around the world are cutting deals of all description with famous chefs. Boutique hotels work incredibly hard to build "hip" drinking and dining venues. And even low-priced, limited-service hotel chains like to make sure they are within a few steps of a casual-dining restaurant with a recognizable name.

But all this sound, fury, expense and white-truffle oil doesn't necessarily mean that business travelers have palatable dining options when they check into a hotel. In fact, the more attention hotels lavish on their food and beverage operations, the more unhappy business travelers seem with their in-house dining.

But partially by kismet and partially by savvy thinking, a few hotels around the world do offer intriguing and satisfying (not to mention delicious) on-site dining options. I've come across a few recently and thought you'd like to know about them. I'm not suggesting that the dining component should influence where you stay in these cities, but it sure is, um, food for thought…

When the glossy Embassy Suites New York debuted in 2000, the chain wanted its new flagship property to have an equally glossy frill: an on-site restaurant. But the restaurant, Unity, disappeared in a New York minute. But the New York Embassy Suites was lucky enough to be within a development that had five other restaurants. And one of them, Lili's Noodle Shop & Grill, is exactly the kind of fast, fun and affordable restaurant that hotels should have. The airy, casual décor is conducive to conversation and the vast menu offers countless choices of well-prepared soups, meats, seafood and vegetables. Favorite starters include "lettuce tacos," make-them-yourself concoctions of vegetable, chicken or shrimp soong wrapped in crisp leaves of iceberg lettuce; steamed dumplings; and Lili's buns with Cantonese-style roasted pork, chicken, beef or duck. Large bowls of steaming soup come with egg noodle, mai fun, chow fun or udon. Half a dozen choices of fish may be grilled, steamed, braised or served as a sizzling platter with snow peas, mushrooms and basil in garlic sauce. Specials also abound, such as skewered shrimp in filo pastry with cilantro-lime dipping sauce. A comprehensive beverage menu offers cocktails, beer, wine and Taiwanese bubble tea. Service is quick and relatively attentive. Prices are reasonable: about $30 per person including drinks and tip for dinner.

I liked South Beach a lot better when it was called the Art Deco District and most of the old hotels were abandoned. But South Beach is part of the business-travel landscape now, so deal with it. And, when you do, make time for a meal at Wish. Located mid-block and tucked inside the old Tiffany Hotel, which has been reborn, restyled and rechristened The Hotel, Wish is blessedly removed from the chaotic and increasingly trashy scene on Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive. The indoor/outdoor dining room is stylish--fashion designer Todd Oldham outfitted it--and does triple duty: It's a hotel restaurant for breakfast, a casual place for lunch and a much glossier, dressier place for dinner. The outdoor garden seating is romantic without being silly; the indoor space is trendy without being ridiculous. The food is a truly creative fusion of Brazilian flavors and ingredients and French cooking techniques. The fresh fish and shellfish are best and most interesting, but the poultry is also intriguingly prepared. Excellent desserts have a Latin touch, too. The best thing I can say: Wish is a restaurant for adults, no easy task in SoBe these days. Expect to spend about $150 for dinner and dessert for two without wine.

If you need proof that the term hotel dining is not an oxymoron, you could hop on a flight to Singapore. Then stop by the Summer Pavilion in the Ritz-Carlton Millenia Hotel. The dining room itself is sumptuous, comfortable and serene, complete with glass walls that allow you to view the private hotel garden and waterfall. The food? Extremely elegant and innovative Cantonese with just a touch of French fusion, most of it created by Fok Kai Yee, who has developed a fanatical following of foodies and fellow chefs. Fok's dim sum, which is available only at lunch, is especially noteworthy. This is no drive-by cart joint, that's for sure. His delectable tidbits are offered with flair by an impeccable service staff. A can't-miss entry: ethereal prawn, water chestnut and chive dumplings served with the restaurant's own X.O. chili sauce. (Singaporeans obsess over chili sauce and Fok's special blend is available by the bottle.) An à la carte menu item of note: the succulent sliced duckling with fresh mango and lemon sauce. The wine list is dazzling, with labels from around the world. Expensive by Singapore standards. Lunch and dinner only; reservations are strongly advised.

Six years after it first set London's crowded Indian restaurant scene on its collective ear, The Quilon remains heaven for adults who expect exquisite food in a refined dining room. Best of all, it's part of an ornate complex of buildings that make up the Crowne Plaza St. James and 51 Buckingham Gate hotels. The menu focuses on the cuisine of India's Southwestern coastal provinces and the dishes offer a rush of exotic flavors. Rasam is a bracing and peppery tomato consommé served in small glasses. Crab cakes are scented with curry leaves, ginger and chillies and accompanied by spiced noodles. Plump and juicy char-grilled scallops are marinated in chili, turmeric and lime juice. A whole sea bass, grilled with spiced onions, is served in banana leaves. The fragrant mango curry is infused with yogurt, coconut, mustard seeds, chilies and curry leaves. Even the basics--fluffy lemon rice, piquant sambhar (lentils and vegetables), charming miniature papadum--are lovingly made and presented. Service is attentive, courteous and quite precise when describing unfamiliar dishes. The tailored dining room is richly decorated with lush fabrics, light woods, glass and alluring murals depicting Kerala, the emotional center of the cooking. Prices are London high, so you should expect to pay about $150 for two without wine. Lunch and dinner only; reservations are a must.

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