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Dining at Gustu (La Paz)

There were two critical things that were high on my to-do list for Bolivia.  The first was to ride the World’s Most Dangerous Road on mountain bikes and the second was to dine at Gustu, arguably the best restaurant in La Paz.

Gustu opened in 2012 and is founded on the philosophy that food can help change the world.  It isn’t just a great restaurant but it is also a cooking school with most of the students coming from under privileged areas of Bolivia.  The head chef, Kamilla Seidler, is originally from Copenhagen, and moved to La Paz to work with Claus Meyer on his innovative project to improve the world through food education and training.  She was recently named Best Female Chef by Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Exterior of Gustu – arguably the best restaurant in La Paz.

We hadn’t eaten much by the time we arrived at Gustu.  The high altitude and low oxygen levels were wreaking havoc with our bodies.  The altitude sickness medicine really wasn’t helpful for us – or if it was, I’d hate to see how bad it would be without the meds!  I wasn’t really hungry, but I hadn’t eaten but a few bites for a couple days now.  We forced ourselves up and out – we weren’t going to miss out on this great opportunity.  I really just wanted to sit in bed and count the minutes until we left La Paz and returned to sea-level Lima.

The interior of the restaurant reminded me of many other restaurant spaces we’ve visited.  Not all that avant garde or exciting, but it was indeed a change from where we’d been dining up to this point.

The colorful interior of Gustu.

We were the only ones in the restaurant when we arrived for our 19h00 reservations and by the time we left at 21h00 there were only three tables occupied.  Perhaps it was a slow night, or a people were just choosing to dine really late.

We were given several menus, including the drink list, an appetizer listing and one for the main meal.  We knew that we’d be doing the tasting menu – which would allow us to experience the best the restaurant had to offer.  Unlike most tasting menus we enjoy, we chose not to add on the wine / cocktails pairing.  I wasn’t at all sure that my system could handle all the food and booze.  I opted for the non-alcoholic pairing.

Appetizers

Main Courses

The Dessert Menu

Tasting Menu Pricing

Once we made our high level menu selection, the restaurant kicked into gear.  It sure wasn’t like it was an autopilot, but everything moved so perfect and smooth.  The servers didn’t do a great job of properly explaining each course – mostly a function of a language barrier.  My Spanish skills are limited as was our server’s English.  At a couple points, our main server didn’t deliver the course, and her replacement server seemed very nervous and unsure of himself.  Our server stayed back near the kitchen and watched him deliver and provide service.  It was clear she was observing and coaching his service – it would have been nice if she had ensured all the details were relayed to us.

The menus and napkins were perfectly branded.

The Singani Sour was our only proper alcohol cocktail during our visit. The altitude really wreaked havoc on our stomachs.

Our non-alcoholic cocktails, paired with each course.

Amuse Bouche

Beet baguette and coca bread, with a quinoa tofu spread and coca butter.

Garden Tomatoes with Parmesan Cream and Llajua Granite.

Poached Paiche with Watermelon, Yogurt and Orange Glased Carrots

Grilled Goat Cheese, Plumb Sorbet and Roasted Nuts

Our meal was very good.  We were happy to have flavorful food in our bellies.   The tomatoes were by far my favorite course.  Tomatoes are my favorite fruit, in general, but these were remarkably flavorful and left me wanting much more.

Gustu was a really great experience not only for the food, but to support such an amazing mission.  Helping people pull themselves out of poverty by offering a proper training program and support so they can thrive in the restaurant industry is truly a noble cause.  Several of this program’s alumni have moved on and started their own restaurants in and around La Paz.  Such a great program.

Have you eaten at Gustu?  What was your favorite course? Did you struggle with the lack of oxygen like we did too?

Thoughts on La Paz

La Paz was never on my short list of vacation destinations. For this trip, it made sense. I did a lot less research on this city than I should have. The altitude and pollution impacted me more than I thought they would. I struggled with catching my breath after walking just a few hundred meters. For a good portion of my time in La Paz I just wanted to leave. That being said, I wasn’t a complete sad sack the whole time. For the little bit of time that we weren’t sick, we did enjoy ourselves.

After we checked into our hotel, we wandered around and visited the Iglesia de San Francisco and walked over to the Plaza Murillo which is home to the Presidential Palace. The Plaza was surprisingly busy with so many people playing with and feeding the pigeons.

Plaza Murillo full of families feeding the pigeons and enjoying the sun.

We were hungry but found most places were closed on Sunday. We did stumble across a little cafe just a few blocks from our hotel which was owned and operated by a well traveled Bolivian man. He had even worked in world glass restaurants in the US with chefs like Grant Achatz of Alinea and Next fame.

The tile work in the cafe was stunning.

A simple cubano sandwich with chips and a beer was a wonderful way to relax.

This small coffee shop had a great Cuban sandwich and reasonably priced beers, and was housed in a beautiful building. We spent a couple hours chatting with the owner – great conversations about travel, food, politics and corruption (both US and other countries). After our time here, I was very excited to see other parts of La Paz and meet other Bolivians.

The next day Mike was feeling under the weather, so we took it slow and joined a cable car tour. La Paz is built in the bowl, so public transit can be a bit difficult – you can’t really build subways like you would in a flatter city, or even a hilly city, the logistics are reversed. The buses must traverse very steep inclines with limited oxygen too. The city decided to build an aerial cable car system, called Mi Teleférico, that connects La Paz with El Alto and various points in between. We stumbled across this tour company as we were checking out Calle Jaen.

Calle Jaen is worth a visit as it is a beautiful old cobblestone Street surrounded by brightly colored buildings. These buildings are home to museums, art galleries and a tour shop.

Jaen Street (Calle Jaén) in La Paz is a charming little street full of colorful buildings housing small shops, museums and tour offices.

The tour we took was lead by a woman who was of Spanish decent, but her family had been in La Paz for hundreds of years. She studied in the US and her English was perfect. Our tour had four other people on it, all members of the same family.

The tour connected all three cable car lines, but also required us to take the small local mini buses as well. The views were amazing and our guide was quite knowledgeable about current political events as well as the long and storied history of Bolivia.

A view from our Cable Car Tour of La Paz.

The buildings scaling the hills of La Paz leading up to El Alto.

Mountains in the distance over La Paz.

One story that was brought up many times as we wandered through Bolivia was the unfortunate fact that Bolivia is now a land locked country. Bolivia use to have a coastline, but lost it in the late 1800s in a war with both Chile and Peru. The Bolivian government was pushing international courts to return the captured land back to them. The Bolivians that we talked to were all confident that their request filed in International Court would be successful. The Peruvians we spoke with were equally confident that Bolivia would NOT be successful.

You will see we didn’t do a lot while in La Paz, we were sidelined by the altitude. We knew we needed to be out and active when we were feeling up to it, so we tried to hit it hard when we could. Our stomachs were in awful shape. We spent so much time just in our hotel.

Is La Paz on your short list? What would you recommend to others who plan on visiting? Biking the World’s Deadliest Road is high on my recommendation list, plus dining at Gustu (read about that soon). What did we miss out on?

Pratic Hotel, Le Marais 

You can read all about my first visit to Paris here, basically, I fell in love with this city the moment we touched down at Charles de Gaulle in 2011. The past couple of visits, our time has been short in the City of Lights – often just a day or two. We would use points and stay in a beautiful Starwood property on Avenue George V, just off the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. For this trip, we wanted to be more frugal and wanted to get back into the neighborhoods.

Our first thought was to revisit our first Paris hotel, the Jeanne d’Arc, unfortunately, this specific weekend, that hotel was going for more than  €200 a night, which is nuts. In general, I say Paris is like New York or Las Vegas (huh? I know, bare with me). I’m not spending much time at all in the room, so I don’t need anything fancy. I need hot water in a private bathroom (I’m not walking down the hall and waiting in line to use the bathroom, fuck that), a door that locks and a bed that is comfortable enough.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do love the 180 square meter suite with two bathrooms and a fire place, but I’m here to see the city. I’m up early to get a pain au chocolat and I’m out late drinking wine in a cafe, watching the people. I just need a few good hours of sleep and a hot shower…and of course, I don’t want to get murdered as I sleep.

We chose the Pratic Hotel, which for four nights cost just €580 in total.  The hotel is just three minutes from the St. Paul Metro Station (Line 1) and surrounded by a young, vibrant neighborhood. This formerly Jewish neighborhood of Le Marais, is more of the gayborhood now, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. Yes, there are same sex couple walking around holding hands, but you aren’t being kept awake by any loud clubs. It is a perfect little neighborhood with great restaurants, fun bars and it is so centrally located, you can literally get anywhere in the city in minutes.

The Pratic Hotel is small. There are six floors, each floor with four rooms. The rooms have private baths. The hotel has been renovated recently and is very clean – it has a sleek, modern feel.  The rooms are tiny. Our room was about four meters by three meters (likely less, you had to walk sideways to get by the foot of your bed (there was probably 10 centimeters (6 inches) of clearance.

The beds were firm yet, quite comfortable. The bathroom was new as well and had a small sink, a toilet and a shower. The shower reminded me of the room in Bolivia. The shower itself was so small, I dropped the shampoo once and had to get out of the shower to pick it up. I’m not a small guy by any means, but that is ridiculous (I’m 5’11 and 185 pounds). I even got the shock of my life as I turned around in the shower and I accidentally bumped into the faucet, turning the warm water icy. Now that’ll wake you up, and make you a little more mindful of your surroundings.

Our room – fourth floor – quite a tight space, but worked well for us.

The hotel has no elevator, so walking to our room on the forth floor (room 418) was tiring at the end of a long day. Paris was blazing hot when we were there.  The high temperatures were consistently around 30C-32C each day. Our hotel didn’t have air conditioning. We felt like we were cooking at night. We slept with our window open, which faced Place Saint-Catherine. The Place was busy until 02h00 each morning and was really loud. Interestingly enough the noise  didn’t bother us, despite the wide open window drawing in all of that party sound.

The beautiful and vibrant Place Saint-Catherine in the 4th.

We chose not to take breakfast at the hotel. This decision was made based on two factors 1) The hotel was going to charge €7/person and 2) There were dozens of great boulongeries in walking distance, where we could get a stellar meal for much less.

The breakfast room – we didn’t eat here, nor did we see anyone else during our stay.

The Pratic Hotel was nothing to write home about, but it met all of our needs, including 1) Reasonably Priced 2) Perfect Location 3) Safe and 4) Comfortable. I would consider staying at this property again, but it all comes down to price. If it is cheaper than the other options, book it.

Where do you stay in Le Marais? Do you have a go-to hotel, or do you reach for the best prices property? What other hotels do you recommend?

Thai Airways Royal First Class (BKK-MUC)

After a bit of a delay boarding and a rather lovely yet awkward push through 250 other passengers waiting to board, we were finally at the Door 1L for our 9,249 km (5,474 mile) and 11.5 hour journey from Bangkok to Munich.  The Royal First cabin on Thai Airway’s Boeing 747 is configured in a staggered 1-2-1 layout. I say, staggered because the first row only has two seats due to the curvature of the plane.  There are three window seats on each side and two rows of two center seats – allowing for 10 passengers in the front of the plane.  There are 14 Royal Silk (Business Class) seats directly behind the Royal First cabin, plus another 26 seats on the upper deck. I would have much preferred to be seated in the small upper deck, but first is on the main deck.

We opted to sit in Seats 3E and 3F – the last two seats in first, in the middle section.  The seats Thai uses in First on both their A380 and B747 service are the same, all forward facing lie-flat seats.  The seats aren’t angled away from each other, so if you are traveling with someone, you can still talk to them relatively easily.

A view from 3F – Love the pointy end of the cabin.

The reverse view from 3F – big drop off from the First Class to Business Class, eh?

As I reach my seat, 3F, the Stew approached, welcoming me aboard and asking what I wanted to drink. He was very rushed and very agitated. My gut is that the delay was frustrating him, he knew he had to get a multi-course meal out and get people to bed quickly.  He was trying to be efficient.  I ordered champagne.

As we arrived at our seat, we were greeted with a signature Thai Orchid, some chocolates and a rather rushed Stew.

I continue to get situated – taking out my noise-cancelling headphones, my tablet, a USB Cable to ensure that my phone was fully charged for the photos I knew I’d be taking.  The champagne was delivered and the Stew comes back asking what I wanted for my meal.  Mind you, I hadn’t sat down at that point – I was still unpacking, rearranging, etc.  I let him know I hadn’t looked yet and needed a few minutes.  He slammed his hand down on the seat in front of me and stormed off.  So strange.

My refreshments while we board – Champagne, still water with my Rimowa Amenity Kit.

The champagne being served was a 2006 Dom Perignon – it flowed throughout the flight.

I get settled, enjoy my chocolates and some champagne and the Stew comes back to ask about my dinner selection (it had been about 45 seconds since his last visit). I told him I hadn’t decided and that I didn’t even have a menu yet. He proceeds to pull one out of the area where the magazines and safety cards are stored…then he stands there while I look at it.  He asks again about my selection.  Good god man, give me a second.  He walks off in a huff again.

Plenty of legroom and a huge IFE Screen.

I figure if I don’t have an answer for him on his next visit I’ll probably be escorted off the flight — yes, all this is happening while passengers in business and economy are still boarding.  I tell him I’ll take the Thai Curry with Beef Satay.  “It is too spicy for you, you’ll hate it. I suggest you choose something else.”  Ok, so just a few hours ago I was at Nahm sweating my ass off because of an extremely spicy Prawn Curry, but I was very confident that this dish wouldn’t be anywhere near that spiciness. I again, requested this dish.  His response was priceless: “Fine, but if you don’t like it, you can’t change your selection.”  Now if that isn’t First Class service, I don’t know what is.

The door closes about 25 minutes after we boarded, so the Thai Airways folks did a great job in getting all the passengers on board and settled.  We had a short taxi to the runway, but a very long and bumpy take off roll.  The plane sounded like it was rattling from every screw, bolt, door and cabinet.  It was so loud (and unsettling is not the right word, but something just felt off), so much the passengers I could see all gave each other a concerned look and tightened up their seat belts.

We were in the air and once we crossed 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) the cabin crew jumped into service. Starting with the beverage service and accompanying nuts.  Everything seemed quite rushed – but at this point it was already past 01h30, so people wanted to get some sleep and I’m sure the stews are getting yelled at if they don’t get service done quickly.  We weren’t in any hurry ourselves, I was fine staying up all night and experiencing the wonder that was Thai Royal First class.

Champagne and nuts to kick off the meal – this should be the service everyday, everywhere, don’t you think?

After the drink orders were taken, I grabbed my Thai Royal First pajamas and went to the lavatory.  The lav on the the B747 was quite tight, nothing at all like the large and luxurious Thai A380.  You almost had to be a contortionist to change in that tiny bathroom – but luckily a couple glasses of Dom made me a little more flexible and I managed to change without any of my clothes touching the bathroom surfaces.

No refills on the nuts were offered – we were obviously on a quick an efficient service tonight.  The caviar service came next and I absolutely loved the caviar service last time I flew Thai.  This time, the caviar cart was not wheeled around, but we were asked what accouterments we wanted and the fully plated version came out.  We were also given our own individual jar of caviar this time, while previously we  given individual scoops of caviar – so you could adjust your portion accordingly.  Keep it coming!  The crew didn’t include the vodka pairing with the caviar tonight though – quite disappointing.

Caviar – prepped and ready.

Mike and I taking a break from the movie we were watching to pose for photos during caviar service.

I’m changed and ready for my dinner. First stop, caviar!

Caviar was served in individual jars this time.

After we finished our caviar – immediately after I mean, with almost no delay or hesitation, we were given a salad course. I think.

Salad?

Then another salad course.  The second with Brussels sprouts, carrots and nuts and greens.  A perfectly respectable second salad of the flight.

Salad?

A mild lime flavored sorbet to cleanse our palettes before moving on to the entree.  We were still moving along at quite a clip here too, not a moment was wasted between final bite of one course and the delivering of the next.

The intermezzo sorbet did a good job as a palette cleanser. The lime flavor wasn’t overpowering, but just right.

Next up was the Thai curry that was going to be way too hot for me – and when that happened, I’d be stuck without a meal for the flight…or so the Stew told me.  He did a great job of setting the table, especially considering there were so many condiments that came with my curry and satay.  I will say the curry was very good, it had the mildest of kicks too it too, but this of course had nothing on Nahm. I ate every single bite of this curry – I did have to shoo the Stew away a couple times as he tried to clear my tray table while I was taking a break from the hurried pace of our meal.  I’d totally order this next time I fly Thai.

The traditional Thai curry was very good and served with all the condiments one would need!

After dinner was cleared, I looked for the Stew working my aisle. I needed his help making my bed, but he was no where to be found.  I found his counterpart working the other aisle (she was back in business class chatting with some colleagues and passengers).  She quickly came up and made my bed without hesitation.  She was so much nicer and more professional.  I wish I had sat in her aisle.

It doesn’t look all the comfortable, but it’s a great bed as you fly to Germany.

I crawled into bed and prepared for sleep.  I was pretty full, so sleep didn’t come all that quickly to me and the First Class Cabin on Thai (and many other airlines too) is like a sweat lodge – the heat is just cranked up. Farther back in the plane it is much cooler, but it was so hot up front that you didn’t need all the blankets they provided.

I ended up sleeping off and on for about 5 hours of this flight.  I was too full and too warm to get a great night’s sleep.  I got up about 60 minutes before we landed (I asked the Stews not to wake me for breakfast – I’m not really a breakfast guy and I was pretty full still when I woke up) and popped into the lav to change and brush my teeth before everyone else started getting cleaned up before landing.

As we came in for a landing the old B747 shook and shimmied, just like it did on take off.  Closet and lav doors popped open and overhead bins dropped down.  We landed smoothly and taxied to our gate.  As we deplaned we were given the customary Thai orchid and like the A380 flight, the Stews held back the Business Class (and Economy) passengers until all the First Class Passengers had deplaned.  That is such an elitist move by the airlines, but I absolutely love it.

Flying Thai Royal First was one of the most anticipated parts of this trip.  I utterly adored my experience on the A380 and since I love the B747 itself, I thought I’d be equally wowed.  I did enjoy the flight, the food, the hard product (except for the doors and bins that kept popping open), but the service was dismal at best.  I know people fly for different reasons and it can be quite annoying when you want to sleep and the cabin crew are banging around serving a meal late into the night, but we felt rushed and couldn’t fully enjoy the experience.  Yes, I’m sure I could have been more proactive and told the Stew to slow down and attempted to enjoy the process more, but I didn’t.

I would definitely fly Thai Royal First again – and I’d love to experience their A380 service again -even if it costs more United miles than the first time I flew it.  The daytime flight out of FRA to BKK I think is the way to go – long enough flight to really experience the journey and early enough in the day you aren’t rushed by people trying to get some sleep.

Have you flown Thai Airways Royal First?  Which experience (A380 or B747) was more inline with yours?

Westin Peachtree Plaza

I needed to be in Atlanta for a few days in early December and decided staying at the Westin Peachtree Plaza because 1) It was near where my travel companion was staying – he’s a Marriott guy and 2) The Fitness Center had Peloton Bikes. I knew I’d be staying at a Starwood Property as I needed the nights to keep my SPG Platinum Status and the rates for all hotels in the area were basically the same, so the Peloton really sealed the deal.

A couple days before my arrival I received a welcome email from a member of guest services as the hotel asking if I needed anything, so I asked to be assigned to the guest room with the Peloton. I figured if I had a bike in the room, I’d be more likely to work out than if I had to go to the gym.  The response came quickly that they couldn’t confirm me into that room now, but would note my reservation and try to get me into that room upon arrival.

I arrived late in the afternoon on Sunday and after a very long wait at the Platinum check-in desk, I was greeted by a woman working reception.  She had a big, bold and bright smile and was in great spirits.  She, like many Starwood folks working the front desk (at least that I’ve come across) see your Platinum Status and hurry through the check-in process.  I always assume they think that since you stay 50+ nights you don’t really care to hear all the details of the hotel, and in general that is right.  I just want to hear where the Lounge is, how to get to the elevators and hopefully that I’ve been upgraded to a suite.  She told me I was indeed upgraded to the “Westin Fitness Room, with Bike.”  I was ecstatic – with the bike in the room, I would definitely work out!

I hurried to the room.  The Westin Peachtree Plaza is huge.  There are nearly 1,100 rooms across more than 70 floors.  The main elevator bank confused me at first, as the signs to which set of elevators would get you to your room wasn’t clear.  I eventually made it to my room and discovered there was indeed a bike, but it wasn’t the Peloton.  It was just a regular exercise bike – no metrics, no screen, just a bike.  Frustrating.

That’s no Peloton!

The room itself was perfectly acceptable.  There was ample space, even with the bike and the other fitness equipment that I didn’t feel closed in or claustrophobic.  Other than the additional equipment, the room was a pretty standard Westin room with a king bed, an adequately sized desk and adjacent TV.

My room – king bed, Reebok exercise bike and other miscellaneous equipment.

My own little fitness studio in my room.

View from the fitness center.

The bathroom was a bit dated, but the biggest problem was the toilet stopped working on my first night.  I returned from dinner on Sunday and flushed the toilet, the water flushed, but never refilled.  I flushed again.  Nothing.  By this time it was about 23h00 and I figured I’d just deal with it in the morning.  I woke up at 05h00 and headed down to the gym, but first called the front desk to let them know about my toilet issue.  Honestly, I figured I’d be told that maintenance would be by later in the day and to use the public toilets as needed.  No such luck, fortunately.  Maintenance came up immediately and spent about 75 minutes working on my broken bathroom – most of that time I was at the gym, so it was only the most minor of inconveniences.  The guys said that a valve broke on the toilet making it so the tank couldn’t properly fill.

The small, yet adequate bathroom…and a broken toilet.

On my first night, I stopped by the fitness center before heading out to dinner and I found the hotel did indeed have Peloton bikes – two of them in fact. Only one was working.  I stopped by the front desk to let them know that the equipment wasn’t working, and was told that it would be fixed before I return from dinner.  Perfect.

Two Peloton bikes in the hotel gym. Too bad only one worked at any given time.

The morning of the toilet break, I hit the gym and took a live Peloton class.  Only one of the bikes were working and I hopped on it right as another guest walked in and wanted to ride too.  She was frustrated (rightfully so) and surprisingly, asked me if I would use a different exercise bike, so she could take a class.  Ballsy of her for sure, but I told her I’d be done with my class in 45 minutes and she could ride then.  Hmmm.

Before leaving for my meetings that morning, I stopped by the front desk, reminding them of the Peloton issues.  I was assured that they would be fixed.  They never were – each day I visited only one bike would work.  The working bike would actually alternate by day, so I think someone went down to fix the bike, but ended up turning off the subscription to the other bike.  Each morning I managed to JUST beat another rider to the bike.  I was proud that this early bird got the bike.

The hotel was hosting some conference which meant the bars and restaurants were utterly packed with people.  It took forever and a day to get a drink.  The bartenders and servers were very apologetic, but I think they were just understaffed, which was a bit disappointing.  The good news though, I only had a glass of wine each night, no more, because I couldn’t stand the wait!  The Westin and Starwood helped me make more healthy decisions without even knowing it.

The Sundial Restaurant and Bar was really disappointing.  I stopped by the bar on my first night, as dinner wasn’t as filling as I had hoped.  I wanted to grab a beer and some bar snacks.  The servers here was pretty young and seemed either very poorly trained or poorly supervised.  The bar was pretty empty, but it took two visits of my server to actually bring me a menu, then when she handed it to me, she stood there staring until I selected my beer.  10 minutes later she returned with my drink, and I asked about changing some of the toppings on the pizzas they offered.  She said I couldn’t make any changes (not even adding an ingredient from another pizza to the one I wanted).  I decided to stick with the beer and then order room service.  She eventually came back and said that she “had done the chef a favor,” so he’d make my special order pizza.  Uh, gross?  The pizza arrived and it was disgusting – the sauce had so much garlic I could barely eat it..and interestingly enough, there was so little sauce, it was like eating a saltine cracker.  I had a slice then called it a night.

The pizza and service at the Sundial Bar was abysmal.

So, all in all, my stay wasn’t without hiccups. It is a huge hotel – the fourth tallest in the Western Hemisphere – and the issues were all pretty minor and easily fixed.  That being said, there were many little issues that just compounded on each other.  I would return to this hotel, if I needed to be in that general area in the future.  I’d rather have a hotel in walking distance to my ultimate destination.

When was the last time you had a broken toilet at your hotel?  How about the Peloton bikes – are they ever working perfectly at a Westin (remember the issues at the Westin Seattle)?