"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well: Hotels II (and Food)


One of my favorite hotels was the Mille Collines in Kigali.  It was set high on one of the city’s many hills, had commanding views over the surrounding valley and the mountains beyond.  There was an Olympic-size pool, and at night, the hotel backlit the façade with a variety of pastel lights.  I loved lying on a chaise longue, looking out over the lights of the valley or up to the trellised rooftop restaurant; and I never wanted to be any other place but there.

The hotel had an active local bar, a spacious lobby with tropical planters, brass railings, and a polished floor.  Best of all, it had a massage parlor on the way from the lobby to the pool.  The massages there were cheap ($8.00/hr.) and the best I ever had.  There were three young women working there, and I never had to choose among them.  Each one had long, graceful but strong fingers, which worked every muscle from toe to scalp with just the right pressure.  The massage was always more like a long caress. 

Every time I walked to the bar by the pool, I was tempted to get a massage.  During a long stay I always upped the number of times I went from twice a week, to three, and then to four.  I certainly could have gone all seven days, but there was always some Puritanical barrier which I couldn’t cross.  Whenever my shoulder dipped towards the young ladies waiting by the doorway, beckoning, the cold,damp chill of the Scottish Highlands came over me, and I continued on to the pool.

Oyster and sushi bars have that same gravitational pull.  I often walk past two restaurants on M Street in Georgetown, where the oysters are piled high against the windows, and I can see the shucker, and the sweet, juicy oysters lined on iced trays.  The temptation is almost impossible to resist.  I spend hundreds of dollars a month on oysters, so it isn’t exactly like the $8.00 rubs at the Mille Collines, and I was able to resist, but never easily. 

Sushi has always had the same effect.  The first time I ever had sushi was in Narita, Japan in 1980.  I was returning from a World Bank mission to Indonesia, and was booked to stay at the airport hotel which was not at the airport proper, but in the town.  After watching some Japanese baseball on TV, I took a bus into the old part of town.  Narita at that time was still an old, traditional town, and was really more of a village.  It was the home to one of the most important Shinto and Buddhist shrines in the country, and Japanese tourists could get a religious two-for-one by visiting there. 

The shrines were stunning in their simplicity – in a wooded setting with pines and cypress, flowered walks leading to small shrines with stone statues, or to rock and sand gardens; or finally to one of the old wooden Shinto shrines.  I couldn’t believe my luck.  I had not read about this, nor planned it in any way.  It was simply a gift, more welcome and appreciated because it was so unexpected. 

I walked back to the town center to get my shuttle bus back to the hotel and passed a restaurant with pictures of the food posted in the windows.  There were perhaps twenty pictures of sushi.  Everything was in Japanese, but the pictures were enticing.  Maybe it was my passion for raw oysters which began in the early 70s in Paris which gave me some predilection for raw fish, or maybe the pictures looked good, or maybe I was just hungry, but I went in.  After the first bite of buttery fatty tuna, I was hooked.  I went on to eat everything they offered – uni, unagi, toro, ikura, and much more; and I only stopped because I thought I should.

When I got back to Washington I looked up and found a Japanese restaurant near the Bank, and went there for sushi.  After the sushi chefs got to know me, I stopped ordering, and they prepared one delectable morsel after another.  Sushi, sashimi and entremets of sculptural reeds and leaves, bits of salty or pickled morsels, then more fish.  I couldn’t stop, but did only because I was spending over $100 a meal – and this in 1980.

Later on, I discovered Makoto, a Japanese restaurant in the Palisades, and at the time it was a real Japanese place.  Excellent sushi, and a 10 course dinner where each course was an architectural creation and sumptuous portions of raw and cooked fish.  It declined quickly in quality as it got more popular.  The fish gradually disappeared and the dinner was mostly vegetarian, and the only Japanese accent to the place was getting yelled at as you entered and left.

One day for lunch I was at the sushi bar, and kept ordering more and more delicacies, trying new ones and going back to the ones I especially loved, mixing the rich custardy sea urchin with the salty salmon roe, balancing both with grilled mackerel and eel, going back to the beginning for more tuna and yellowtail.  After a third round, the sushi chef turned to me and asked, “Don’t you think you have had enough?”.  Obviously I had crossed the line beyond the grotesque intemperate Gorgon caricature of an American and the counter guy just had to say something.

In any case, the Mille Collines was a great hotel, and there were many good restaurants nearby, many open-air because the climate was cool and fresh and mosquitoes were never a huge problem.  My favorite was a pizza place, but this was no Papa John’s.  They had a wood-burning stove, the crusts were thin and crispy, and the toppings made from fresh tomato, four kinds of imported cheese, and homemade sausage.  The food was superb, and the view from the patio over the many hills and lights of the city was spectacular.

I always stayed in the same room at the Mille Collines because it took me so long to find; so I should say that it is a great hotel if you get the right room.  For my first stay they offered me “A quiet room on the top floor, with a great view of the hills”.  It was all the above, except that it was right below the terrace restaurant, and every night around 7pm the scraping, grinding, and banging of the heavy wood chairs on the terrace floor sounded like Patton’s army on the move.  I tried to convince myself that I could live with it.  It was a great room, and changing is always a pain.  When the auto-psyching didn’t work, I tried ear plugs, wrapping my head with pillows, and turning on the radio to a music station.  Nothing worked.  Although the rumbling of the tanks was muted, they were still there.

“We can give you a similar room on the third floor”, the concierge told me. “Very peaceful, and no terrace restaurant”.  Again, all the above was correct, except for the fact that the floor had recently been converted from a smoking floor, and despite their best efforts, it still stank like a cheap trucker’s joint off the Interstate.  I was later told by a friend in the business that nicotine has a kind of half-life – it breaks down slowly, and unless you power- and steam-clean all possible nooks and crannies of the duct works, it will still smell like stale cigarettes.

“The second floor rooms are equally fine”, I was told the next morning, “although without the view”.  Correct, but also the traffic noise, a distant hum from the upper floors, was a persistent roar down below.  That, and the floor was right on top of the poolside restaurant, so the liveliness that I enjoyed while at the bar, was unwelcome at bedtime.  Finally I found the one room which was perfect – in a quiet corner of an annex, great view of the pool, nothing on top, nothing below. 

Another favorite hotel was in San Salvador (it changed owners many times from Hilton to Radisson, etc.) for many of the same reasons that I liked the Mille Collines – it was breezy and open, and since it was high up and at the base of the volcano, always cool and fresh.  The lobby had a finely polished black marble floor, great brass urns of tropical flowers, an active bar overlooking the pool, the gardens, and the volcano beyond, and a Cuban cigar store.  I love cigars, and Cuban puros are all they are said to be.  Rich, flavorful, no bite, and a gentle, easy draw.  I bought one of these delicious cigars every day, sat in the breezy lobby, watching the comings and goings of le tout San Salvador, the fading evening light, and knew that I wanted to be no place else in the world.

San Salvador was then, as it is now, a dangerous place, so my excursions were limited; but there was a great tipica place within a 100’ of the hotel.  Delicious sopa de mondongo – basically a chicken soup with all of the innards (gizzards, liver, hearts), a piece of corn on the cob, and fresh vegetables, all accompanied by fresh tortillas, made from fragrant yellow corn, and almost like corn muffins.  A cold beer and I was in heaven.


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