Tim Foolery

Home » Articles posted by Tim

Author Archives: Tim

River Street Inn: Where Service Goes to Die

We recently took a trip to Savannah. We were visiting this city with my brother-in-law and his wife.  We knew we wouldn’t be spending a ton of time in the hotel, so we didn’t want to spend a ton of cash on the room, but we all do have exacting standards.  After several days of discussions we decided to stay at the River Street Inn. This property was rated pretty well on TripAdvisor, although many of the recent reviews mentioned some service issues, plus a feeling of dampness (bad A/C?) during summer stays.

We didn’t argue about the hotel at all, but my sister-in-law was more interested in staying at the Mansion on Forsyth, which cost more than $100 more per night than the River Street Inn.  We decided to save the  money…the River Street Inn was still $300/night. We booked through Booking.com.

I wouldn’t be arriving with Mike, he’d be coming directly from Chicago, while I’d be driving from Central Florida (yes…me driving and spending time near Orlando isn’t really like me). I called three days before arrival and added Mike’s name to the reservation so he could check in before I arrived (assuming the room was available).

The woman I spoke with on the phone was pretty put off with my request. I explained twice why I was doing this and she finally confirmed that he was on the reso and would be able to check in upon arrival… yeah, you think you know where this is going…but you don’t.

Mike arrives at the hotel around 11am, not expecting to have a room ready yet, that’s still pretty early.  The woman working reception, Ashley, couldn’t find the reservation. Mike mentions we booked the room four months prior through Booking.com, but she still had nothing. She didn’t want the confirmation number. She said there was no reservation.  After continued requests, she went into another system and found that for some reason Booking.com and the hotel’s system didn’t properly communicate.  She then blamed Mike for that, which of course makes sense, right? The guest who works for neither Booking.com nor the hotel should be responsible for IT issues.

Ashley did find us a room. Not the room we booked. A small room with a queen bed (vs. the king room we booked). We booked this room for a reason. She didn’ care.

Evidently this exchange went on for a while and eventually the Manager came out to help. At this point, we were not interested in staying at this property, if an IT snafu creates such anger and drama, who knows what the rest of the stay would be like.  The Manager finally decided to release us (both me and Mike and the fam) from our reservations. He also gave us coupons for a free continental breakfast at a local brunch place. The coupon was a nice gesture and the restaurant came highly recommended by everyone we talked to….but the continental breakfast isn’t that exciting.

We ended up moving to the Mansion on Forsyth, a Marriott Autograph Collection Hotel, which was stunning by the way.  I wasn’t involved in these discussions with Ashley or the Manager, but Mike is the calm one in the relationship. He will put up with a lot of shit (look, he’s married to me, so he has to), but the service at this hotel pushed him way over the edge.  There was no way he wanted anything to do with this hotel. I’m glad we moved.

So what could we have done differently?  I never call to confirm, a reservation, even when using booking.com. I get the confirmation email and then the reminder a couple days before the stay, but never call the hotel. This time I did call, but I never had any indication they couldn’t find our reservation.

The whole experience left a bad taste in our mouths. I will continue to use booking.com as we’ve never had an issue like this before, but I may find myself calling the hotel to confirm booking before arrival.  I also haven’t contacted booking.com about this issue either.

Have you had this type of issue before? How did you handle it? What would you have done differently? How could we have handled this better?

Everest – Fine Dining Chicago

Everest is a mainstay in Chicago’s fine dining scene. This Alsatian restaurant, located in the southern part of the Loop neighborhood.  Everest earned its first Michelin Star in 2011 (the first year Michelin visited Chicago) and has kept their single Star ever since.  Chef Jean Joho opened Everest in 1986, but it took us until last week to try it.

Everest has been on our list for quite a while. We love French food and we don’t get a chance to sample Alsatian food very often.  I booked our reservations about three weeks out, through Opentable, without problem.  We snagged a prime reservation at 20h00.

The day of the meal, we arrived right at 20h00 and were immediately escorted to a waiting area that reminded me a lot of a small break out room at a conference hotel. The room had those moveable walls so you can adjust its size.  There were three tables in this area, 2 two-tops and a four-top. Techichally we didn’t have anywhere to sit, because the two people at the four-top were sitting in seats one and three. We asked them if we could sit with them, but they didn’t move, so we sat between them. It was awkward.

The waiting room, where we waited…and waited..and waited…

 

The View…from the expandable space waiting area.

We ordered a drink in this holding area and watched as all the others near us were moved into the dining room.  Another couple, from Toronto, joined us for a drink.  At 21h00 we were brought to our seats – yes, one hour after our reservation. I was frustrated and starving.

Everest offers both a tasting menu and an al a carte menu. The tasting menu didn’t really appeal to me as there were two of the seven courses that I would have eaten, but wouldn’t order on their own (Foie Gras and Pheasant). We opted for the a la carte option.

When exploring the tasting menu, you can add optional wine pairings. With the a la carte menu, we just asked the server to select three wines for our four course dinner.  We decided to have two starters and a main, followed by a shared cheese course and then ultimately the dessert.

I started out with the Atlantic Oysters then moved into the Everest Roasted Lobster – a dish on which the menu claims Everest has built its reputation.  Mike also chose a Everest Signature entree – the Sole Meunière.

Atlantic Oysters with Cucumber Riesling Fleurette

Everest Roasted Maine Lobster in Alsace Gewurztraminer Butter and Ginger

Magret of Mulard Duck, Marinated Turnips à la Colmarienne and Jus de Canard

 Filet of Sole New Meunière, Pomme Mousseline, Espelette, Petite Capers

New Wave Heritage Apple Soufflé, Peanuts, Caramel and Vanilla, Maple Glacé

Petits Fours including a gel, a white chocolate and a pistachio madeleines.

We enjoyed our food at Everest, but were really put off by the extremely long wait we had until our table was ready.  Then the waiting just continued.  It took us a while to get menus, then finally to place our orders.  Once that was all done, the kitchen kept everyone on track.  The food came out properly prepared and at the right temperature.  It was clear the issues were at the front of the house.  Two tables next to us had the wrong food delivered – our food was spot on from delivery to taste.

The decor was extremely outdated.  It felt like we were in a scene from American Psycho – it felt very late 1980s or early 1990s.  I was fully expecting Susan Sugarbaker to be dining at a table next to us — no such luck.

The patrons weren’t like those you see at other Michelin restaurants either.  They all seemed very stiff and stodgy…except the table next to us.  They were holding hands all through dinner, except when she’d step away to the washroom for 15-20 minutes at a time.  We totally got the high-end pro and her John vibe from them.  The other table right next to us had a woman and her recent college grad son.  The son was explaining why pairing wine with food was stupid.  We’ve all been there, a recent grad who knows EVERYTHING and anyone who offers guidance is dumb and stuck in the old ways.  This was that guy.

I’m glad we visited Everest.  We checked one of the most famous and long standing fine dining restaurants in Chicago.  We have no plans on returning.  The food was good, but everything else (decor, service and other patrons) all fell short on this dining experience.  For $500 per couple, I’d rather enjoy fine dining at Next, Goosefoot or Grace (in Chicago, that is).

Have you been to Everest?  Were you looking for Patrick Batemen too?  What did you have? What did you love about your experience?

SLS Las Vegas

I travel to Las Vegas almost every year, usually for work, and I may tack on an extra personal day or two, depending on what’s going on in my life that week.  This trip was completely business with no add on days.  I’ve stayed up and down the Strip on previous visits, including the Luxor, Aria, Planet Hollywood and even the Stratosphere (God help me). Once I even stayed off Strip at the Red Rock resort. This time, I decided to try something new, get away from the massive casinos and earn some night/stay credits at Starwood.  After a little research, I settled on the SLS Las Vegas. I have never stayed at an SLS Property before, but these hotels are part of Starwood’s Tribute Collection and can be found in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and the Bahamas.

The rate was on par with the other hotels I found, but the SLS was offering a couple bonuses to the rate, including 20% off all food and beverage plus a $25/day credit to food and bev charged to the room. Easy enough as these credits would offset the $35 Resort Fee that was in addition to the rate (even including this fee the nightly cost was on par with other hotels of its quality during my stay).

I still had five Platinum Suite Night Upgrades on the books, so I decided to use them here. I have a hell of a time getting these upgrades to clear in the US and often a few will go to waste.  Surprisingly the upgrades cleared pretty early and I was put into a World Tower suite.

I arrived around 20h00 and found no line at check-in. My previous experiences in Las Vegas always had at least a 30 minute wait – obviously I planned my arrival a little better this time.  Check-in wasn’t a painless process however. My rate was right, but the man helping me didn’t see the two F&B benefits. He actually told me they didn’t offer things like that – I had to show him my emailed confirmation. Now whether the credits would have worked the same or not, I don’t know, but I wanted this confirmed.  This took about 15 minutes.  At the end of this discussion, he told me he had personally upgraded me to a World Tower Suite (the same category that the Platinum Upgrades got me). I mentioned that the “personal upgrade” he had given me was the same upgrade that was given to me a week prior. Of course I asked if he could kick the upgrade to a better room. He said he had done everything he could do (which was nothing). That’s fine, I got good use out only upgrades and if he thought he did something to get it for me, good for him.

After this interaction, my expectations had fallen pretty far.  I got to my room, on the 28th floor and was really surprised. The had a fun and funky design – mostly white, with some garish silver accents. There was a ton of space in my living area, enough that they could have added some more seating or a larger bar area.

Living Room of the World Tower Suite

Living Room of the World Tower Suite

Living Room of the World Tower Suite

The bedroom was not only the sleeping area, but the work area. I would have liked the desk to be in the other room to give a more separated feel and allow for a more balanced use of the space.

King sized bed

Desk in Bedroom

To get to the bathroom, you had to walk though the closet, which wasn’t a problem for me. There was ample open storage in the closet, which unused immediately. On work trips, especially when I wear suits, I always unpack and hang my clothes.

Walk-In Closet

The bathroom was very big, with a walk in shower, single sink vanity and the toilet.  There wasn’t enough space to add a separate tub, but I think it could have been done if the shower had been a little smaller.  That being said, I’m not taking a bath in a hotel room in Las Vegas. There is just something off about that to me.

Large bathroom

Large bathroom

The bathroom use to had two sinks, which you could see by the way the plumbing fixtures were laid out. I don’t think two sinks is necessary in a hotel – if you do have two, I like one to be separate from the main bathroom, so you can use the sink while your roommate is in the bathroom…doing….whatever.

The water pressure and temperature were perfect. Actually, the temperature got quite scalding in the sink, but I’d rather regulate that than shave with tepid water.

With the food and bev credits, I decided to dine on property quite a bit.  The Monkey Bar, on the main floor between Registration and the Casino was fun. It is a small bar, open to the public spaces, but was adorned with photos of various apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, etc) in formal attire. Some making martinis, others waiting for your direction. A little garish, but I was digging it.  I drank a variation of the cocktail Aviation, called Buzz the Tower, which I enjoyed.

The first night we ate at Katsuya, the sushi restaurant. It wasn’t inventive and the fish seemed a shade less than fresh. It wasn’t bad, but it did give us pause.

The next night  we decided to splurge. Dinner was following a rough day as this was the day after the maniac opened fire on the concert at Mandalay Bay killing (at the time I write this) 59 people and injuring more than 500. We had some team members at that concert and luckily everyone from our group was safe. Suffice it to say, I took it upon myself to treat the team to a nice dinner.

We went to Bazaar Meat by José Andrés – the steakhouse, and enjoyed the tasting menu. The food was really phenomenal and when I mentioned I don’t care for salmon (which was one of the courses), the server swapped it out quickly and easily. The steak here was truly great- prepared perfectly and seasoned with a bit of big flake sea salt.

I also ate at the pizzeria one night, 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria. Here, you design your own pie (I had a traditional Margherita Pizza with pepperoni, pineapple, goat cheese, cherry tomatoes and artichoke hearts). Pairing with a beer made for a great dinner.

Finally, I grabbed a burger at Umami Burgers. This was the only place I had heard about before my visit to this property. A few colleagues commented that they truly loved the burgers here. I was excited…then after my first bite, I was disappointed. The burger patty itself seemed over processed, the taste and texture felt a bit off.  If you are looking for a burger, skip Umami’s and head down to Bobby Flay’s Bobby’s Burger Palace at City Center, head and shoulders above this competitor.

I gambled a bit here too. While the Casino isn’t big, it wasn’t crowded either. The minimums were low, which surprised me when I saw the table occupancy.  I also watched three Chinese men lose $15,000 each at baccarat within about 10 minutes of play. That was exciting and confusing. I left when they each pulled out a huge wad of cash to start the process over again.

I snagged a late check out, without a problem too.

I really enjoyed my stay at the SLS Las Vegas and am looking forward to my return…and I will definitely return. The property is a manageable size, but has all the amenities I’d want in a Las Vegas resort – great dining, accessible gambling, a cool looking pool (which I missed out on because I had to work) and it even had access to the monorail. It really was a win-win.

Have you stayed at the SLS Las Vegas?  What about the other SLS Properties?  What do you look for in a Las Vegas hotel?

Canoe – Fine Dining in Toronto

I needed to be in Toronto for work last week.  Almost every trip I take between ORD and YYZ results in delays, cancellations and without an extra “travel day” built in, missed meetings.  I’ve been burned too many times on this leg.  That being said, my meetings were Tuesday morning, so I flew into Toronto midday on Monday.  I was delayed a couple hours, but still arrived in plenty of time for my meetings.

Since I had an evening in Toronto without any business plans, I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner and a quick search showed that Canoe met my needs. Basically, I wanted a highly rated and reviewed restaurant with a quality tasting menu.  Unfortunately, the only time I could book online was either 17h00 or 21h00. I called to see if alternate times were available – no luck.  Surprisingly, the day of my reservation (which I booked for 17h00), the restaurant called to confirm and I told them that 17h00 was an ungodly hour for dinner and they agreed. I was able to change it to an 18h45 reservation at the Chef’s Counter.

Canoe is located on the 54th Floor of the TD Bank Tower and offers stunning views of the city and the lake. The chef’s counter seating, that I had, didn’t have those views, but did provide for equally interesting views into the inner workings of their kitchen. It was a great view and period of observation. Their kitchen ran like a well oiled machine and wasn’t like those awful restaurant shows where Gordon Ramsey is screaming like a fool at everyone.

View from the Chef’s Counter at Canoe

Deeper View into the Kitchen from the Chef’s Counter at Canoe

Bread was served with a sun dried tomato and chickpea humus. The sourdough was wonderful.

One thing that this seat did offer that I hadn’t been exposed to before was how kitchens handle allergies. Almost every table that was served had some sort of allergy tagged to it: gluten, dairy, garlic, cilantro, egg, high pH. Are these people really allergic to these, or is it just a preference? One table eve  had a diner who claimed to be allergic to salt. I don’t really like poached eggs and I’ll mention that during a tasting menu, but come on…a salt allergy?

I started off with Canoe’s famous Dill Pickle cocktail, then moved into a couple glasses of wine as the meal progressed.

Canoe is famous for their Dill Pickle Martini. It was much better than I expected – a dill flavor and not very pickly.

Tator Tot
Acadian Caviar + Green Tomato Ketchup

Tator Tot
Acadian Caviar + Green Tomato Ketchup

A glass of sparkling rose was the perfect pairing following the Dill Pickle Martini

Stag Tartare
Cherries, Smoked Heart, Barbecue Gel, Pickled Ramps + Charcoal Oil

Creamed Corn
Quail Egg, Chanterelles, Sumac Popcorn, Marjoram + Buttermilk

Trout + Mussels
Steelhead Trout, Smoked Mussels, Roasted Baby Gem Lettuce, Anchovy + Taramasalata

Larded Beef Filet
Globe Artichokes, Wilted Kale, Black Garlic Aioli, Caramelized Molasses + Sunchoke

Tarragon Ice Cream
Hazelnuts

Wild Blueberry Nougat

Wild Blueberry Nougat

The Full Menu

At the end of the day, I would say this was one of my favorite meal experiences in Toronto. The food itself was great – showcasing vegetables at their prime (the Ontario Corn was something that everyone was raving about). My server was knowledgeable, personable and left me enough space to enjoy my meal, but didn’t forget me, like can happen so often when you’re just a single diner at a restaurant.

The meal at Canoe wasn’t cheap – and I made it even pricier by adding on an entree, so this isn’t a place I’d visit every week (unless someone else is paying), but I will definitely push for a return visit next time I cross the border.

What are your favorite fine dining places in Toronto? If you have an old staple that you visit regularly, I’d love to hear about it and add it to my list for future trips.

Next: World’s 50 Best – The Experience

Next.  The brainchild of Grant Achatz, whose restaurant Alinea, has been ranked Best in the World for several years. Next, located in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, offers a tasting menu dining format where tickets are sold in lieu of reservations.

We’ve been to Next five times before this visit. In general, Next really delivers. We’ve had times where a course (sometimes multiple) miss the mark but only one time where service was bad. The service you get, like everywhere, really depends on the servers. We’ve had some phenomenal servers who were so knowlegable and passionate about the menu at hand. We’ve also had servers who would come out and set the food down and just disappear. They wouldn’t provide guidance on the course (what was being served or why it was selected). You lose a lot during a menu like this if you don’t get all the background and history.

During our most recent visit, our servers fell into both buckets. The courses that had a full and proper delivery and description ended up being the ones we liked much more too. Is it all in my head? Probably.  We actually had a really good service, save for a couple courses where the food or wine was delivered without comment – we had to flag down another server to get the details on the dish.

Next changes their menu a few times a year, 50 Best Restaurants is the third and final menu this year. The 2018 schedule will be released in mid-November.

Ticket prices vary based on day and time of reservation. Our tickets were $285 each for a Saturday reservation at 20h45. Wine pairings were extra – three different levels of wine pairings were available. We chose the standard pairing – the top of the line pairing would have added another $495 per person. I’m sure the wines would have been phenomenal, but we couldn’t rationalize this add on.  As it was, our dinner, with wine pairings, tax and tip came in at just under $1,000.  This meal isn’t an everyday occurrence, but a truly special experience.

We find ourselves using the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list quite a bit when we travel. Most recently we used the list to plan dining in Rio de Janeiro, Paris and Bangkok. Last year when visiting Peru and Bolivia, this list was the cornerstone of our fine dining experience. We ate at three restaurants on this list in Lima alone. Two of which were brought in for this menu (although Maido didn’t actually make our tasting – perhaps the menu will change a bit throughout its run). The best restaurant meal I’ve ever eaten was at Central in Lima and they presented an early course at Next.

When designing this menu, the chefs at Next worked with the chefs represented on their menu. The honored chefs sent recipes, detailed techniques and even videos to show how to properly prepare and plate their entrants. Some chefs even sent ingredients (one even sent seeds to grow the beets!) – others offered substitute ingredients (some of the shell fish was hard to source in proper quantities in Chicago).

Ok, enough lead in, right? Let’s get into the meat of this, shall We? We arrived a couple minutes after our reservation time and were immediately seated. Our table was properly set (a napkin and a tweezer plus water glasses). The table was also adorned with a rose for each place setting and a small bowl with some moss and a couple leaves. Having done this type of dining before, we were confident this would be our first and second courses.

We sat eagerly awaiting the start.

Before we get to far into this, I should let you know that I don’t like poached eggs. I really only like eggs if they are baked into something (cake, for example) or mixed into something else (eggs scrambled into a stir fry). Fine dining tasting menus almost always have a poached egg included. I usually just eat around it. When booking this meal, and filling out the survey, I notified the restaurant I didn’t like poached eggs. A couple emails back and forth (so they could understand if it was an allergy, or if I’m just a pain in the ass – it’s the latter) we were all set.

Our first wine pairing wasn’t a wine at all, but a cocktail with an apple base and foam topper. It was a great pairing with the rose and leaves on the table. As we progressed through the courses, a new wine would arrive. We were given some high level details on the drink (it was all wine, except for the first cocktail), then told how many courses the wine was pairing with. The most courses we had with a single wine was three, but they were good about topping you off if you were running a little low.

I won’t bore you with an analysis of each of the courses and the pairings. But you can see the photos I took of each course. I try to be respectful of other patrons, so I never use a flash (although others were). The lighting at Next was a bit low and my Samsung S6 Edge, which usually does a pretty great job in this situation, struggled a bit. You can also see that I forgot to take a picture of one dish before I dug in….Sorry!

Rose
Rose, Apple, Pomegranate
Quique Dacosta | Alicante, Spain

Jerusalem Artichoke
Walnut, Rye
Geranium | Copenhagen, Denmark

An Oyster’s Frozen Kiss
Oyser, Radish Flower
Mugaritz | San Sebastian, Spain

Eggs Benedict
Caviar, Asparagus, Ham
Eleven Madison Park | New York, USA

Marine Soil
Sea Urchin, Jicama, Razor Clam
Central | Lima, Peru

Squid
Bagna Cauda, Artichoke, Squid Ink
Mirazur | Menton, France

Tartare
Bison, Sunchoke
Estela | New York, USA

Tartare
Bison, Sunchoke
Estela | New York, USA

Badger Flame Beat
Blue Hill at Stone Barns | Pocantico HIlls, USA

Riso Cacio e Pepe
Parmigiano Reggiano
Osteria Francescana | Modena, Italy

Langoustine
Wasabi, Mango, Thai Vinaigrette
Restaurant Tim Raue | Berlin, Germany

Monkfish
Aubergine, Fermented Peppers
De Librije | Zwolle, Netherlands

“Vuelve a la Vida”
Scallop, Beef Tongue, Salsa Bruja
Quintonil | Mexico City, Mexico

All Parts of the Pumpkin
The Skin, The Seeds, The Flesh
Attica | Melbourne, Australia

All Parts of the Pumpkin
The Skin, The Seeds, The Flesh
Attica | Melbourne, Australia

Squab
Parsnip, Almond, Lavender
Next | Chicago, USA

Squab
Parsnip, Almond, Lavender
Next | Chicago, USA

Memory
Foie Gras, Black Truffle, Chives
Restaurant Andre | Singapore

Apples
Chanterelles, Granite
Relae | Copenhagen, Denmark

Chocolate
Milk Chocolate, Blueberry Yogurt
Alinea | Chicago, USA

The course I was looking forward to the most, Central. They did a really great job with the razor clam and leche de tigre. Despite my complete and irrational aversion to poached eggs, I really loved the fare from Eleven Madison Park. Instead of a pickled yolk, my egg was cooked though and tasted amazing with the ham, asparagus and Cavier. One of my favorites of the night.  Speaking of favorites…what was mine you ask?  I really loved the Riso Cacio e Pepe. The risotto was made with parm broth and it was spectacular. The course that really made the night for me was the langostine. It had a puffed rice and wasabi coating that just attacked your taste buds. I wish I had a couple more of those. Utterly phenomenal.

For those of you who have sampled this menu at Next, what was your favorite course? If not, which of these courses are you most looking forward to? What about your favorite menu at Next?