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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Eating in SP (Grand Hotel edition)

While in SP, I must admit that I wasn't the most adventurous thing when it came to food.  Believe it or not, it wasn't because of the guardia in the water, although that would've been a sensible reason to be conservative.  Frankly it was because of the schedule that Jaime and I just happened to fall into.

Most mornings we'd stagger downstairs somewhere around 9:30 or 10--don't worry, I'd fortified myself with my in-room espresso maker long before--and we'd go to this cafe/bar they had in the building's courtyard.  Actually the whole thing was very comfortable and clever.  They'd glassed in the opening over the courtyard to make this usable year-round, but they set up the chairs and decoration like a high-end cafe, albeit one with much more space than most outdoor cafes I've ever been to.

I couldn't tell if the balconies were actually real, but my impression is that they were not; it seemed to me like most of the GHE rooms looked out over one of the neighboring streets.  Then again, it might be nice to have the light the courtyard provided but with less noise than some of the busier streets.

Whatever the layout, it was a great place to get good breakfast, snacks, other lighter food, drinks and desserts for what was a reasonable price by GHE standards.  In fact, my impression was that most of the restaurants in the hotel, or at least in our end and floor of it, used the same kitchen, so Jaime and I were pretty pleased we found this one on the second day.  $70 a day for fancy breakfast just wasn't what either of us wanted.

That being said, we were pretty decadent when it came to our main meal.  Like I said above, we often ended up on this schedule where we left the hotel c. 10-11 am and toured crazily until c. 3 pm by which time we were dying for some food.  Then, sheer, unadulterated laziness set in; it just seemed like too much effort to go out and try to find someplace that was good, where we didn't feel taken as tourists (standard tourist city problem, not a comment against SP), and that was safe with the water.  So we fell back on the hotel's restaurants, which were really quite varied and good.  In fact, it was only by the last night that I think we both were getting to the stage that we wanted to head out and, even then, we'd been too busy that day to bother.

That being said, we did somehow find time to drink.  In fact, one night we made our dinner out of drinks and bar food, pretty funny for two people who aren't generally heavy drinkers (Jaime especially).  It wasn't hard to do when the setting was like this, though, and they brought us multi-tiered trays of nuts, olives, and high-end party mix with every round of drinks.  For some reason, we just didn't feel like moving, especially when there was an extensive cocktail list to try!

The real dining highpoint of the trip was, however, the Sunday brunch at the GHE.  I'd read about this in multiple places, and even thought it wasn't cheap, Jaime and I decided to go for it.  Definitely worth every penny!!

First of all, the main dining room at the GHE really is one of those 19th-c. dining palaces, and it's been beautifully restored.  Most of the seating is on the ground floor; it's possible to go up into the balcony, but I don't think there are any dining tables there.  As you can see here, the stained glass truly is extraordinary, and musicians on the stage played both beautifully and discreetly.  Given how much I generally hate live music at a restaurant, that last point was important to me!

This gives you a little bit of the sense of the buffet set-up, but this is just an "ordinary" morning.  Yes, the restaurant is buffet for its breakfasts and brunches and turns into more formal seating at night.  That being said, the buffet here is quite understated compared to the Sunday brunch set-up.  First, there are no enormous ice sculptures; second, there are no fountains; third, there is no special buffet for caviar and vodka.  No, I'm not making any of that up!

Here's another shot of the room in the more traditional dining room arrangement.  Now imagine down the center this series of large buffets.  First the caviar and vodka, then all sorts of elaborate crudities and salads (and not the stupid and cheap green salad variety) followed by another salads and casserole-type buffet and the most enormous circular, 4-tiered display of breads and rolls I've ever seen.  Then, curving around the side by the stage, in front of the stage, and under the balconies were huge displays of fruits and fruit salads, an Italian-style antipasto bar, a collection of warmers with eggs, meats and other hot foods, a chef who would make custom blinis or omelettes, a display of c. 15 different cakes plus chocolates and gelati, and (finally) a tea, chocolate, and espresso bar with a barrista that puts any other I've ever seen to shame (and he clearly too great pride in doing the perfect espresso, cappuccino, you name it).

When we arrived, our lovely waiter (he's pictured below) seated us and made sure that we immediately had coffee, champagne (Ukrainian--and I'd buy it again in a MINUTE.  It was lovely!) and vodka.  Wouldn't want us to want for anything, right! :-)

Jaime and I both gained new respect for vodka that morning--and not for the reason you think!  Honestly I've always thought of vodka as particularly nasty: thin, burning, tasteless.  This was the hotel's "house" brand, so I was braced for something somewhat like that, albeit maybe a bit smoother.  I figured I'd drink it to be polite, then move to what I liked, and Jaime was on much the same wavelength.

Well,  vodka at the GHE is not served in any ordinary shotglass; it's served in this miniature wineglass that must hold the equivalent of 2-3 shots per pour.  (Jaime's IPhone is next to it for comparison.)  Then, there was the vodka itself.  It was smooth.  It was warmish.  It was oh so easy to drink.  Unlike Jaime, I just couldn't do the "down in one" the waiter recommended, but even then it was completely pleasant--and completely unexpected.  I now understood the Russian obsession with vodka, even though I switched from there to the yummy Ukrainian champagne.  Jaime continued to show his respect for Russia by alternating vodka and champagne throughout our 4-hour meal.

Yes, you read right: 4 hours.  There were just so many amazing dishes there, all prepared with a quality-level of the best restaurants, not the over- and re-heated things you associate with a buffet.  Then, too, our waiter was so good (that's him below); he believed in the glass half-empty, not glass half-full school of pouring.  Then, three, Jaime and I had LOTS of catching up to do, and vodka and champagne do ease the talking!  Then, four, the people watching was extraordinary.

Not surprisingly, a $100 breakfast in a city and country with the economic issues of modern Russia brings out a certain group of people.  While Jaime was fascinated with some of the elderly folks behind me and the "we're too cool for school" French speakers next to us, eventually we both focused on a group sitting slightly behind Jaime.  They were two Russian couples; one had two impeccably dressed little girls, while with the other the wife (who was stunning) was probably 7-8 months pregnant.  We both got a kick out of the mixture of celebration and nonchalance the women showed, while the guys were clearly getting a kick out of taking their wives for a big birthday celebration.  The high point was when our waiter brought out the birthday cake, complete with sparklers.  Everyone was suitably pleased and embarrassed at the reaction of everyone around (smiles & applause), while our waiter handled it with charm and aplomb.


After cake and sparklers, Jaime and I were inspired to, once again, sample from the dessert buffet, while of course, washing things down with champagne or, in my case, spiked cappuccinos.  Is it any wonder that we had to go wander around for an hour or two after this and just didn't have any appetite for dinner that night?  (although there the chocolates and drinks in the room, enjoyed on the sun porch, surely helped).

Yep, it was a meal to end all meals.

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