Everyone knows about hotel restaurants. How they used to be terrible, the last refuge of lone business travelers and budget weddings. How they started to improve in the last decade, hiring four-star chefs and presenting provocative menus that reflect the latest food trends. How they've made every effort to draw in local diners.
Their image has changed, we all admit. But we still won't make a reservation.
The suits at Sheraton ITT hotels believe the reason for the public's disdain lies in how the management system is configured: Too many people in charge, each concerned with his own little section of the business, means no one cares about the whole. So the corporation is in the process of eliminating the food executives from its restaurants and instituting a new position A the Independent Business Unit (IBU) manager. Like an owner/manager of a truly independent restaurant, the IBU manager is responsible for the entire operation. Every employee answers to him, and he answers to the customer, upon whom his salary depends: His compensation is determined according to the restaurant's profits. Last month the Sheraton Bal Harbour Beach Resort launched al Carb centsn, an "IBU signature restaurant" it hopes to replicate all over the world.
Decipher the business-speak and what you've got is a status-conscious in-house franchise that has the appearance of a private venture. General manager Peter Weber fronts as the owner; without Sheraton's backing, no single vendor could possibly afford to stage something as grand as al Carb centsn. You've never seen a hotel restaurant like this one.
For openers, a Spanish guitarist roams the dining room with a portable amplifier pack strapped to his back, strumming to canned Latin rhythms and pausing at your table like the violinists of old. But not even he can compete with the stunning decor: Hardwood floors that gleam as brightly as the tables, some of which have been painted with a border of fruit and then shellacked. Carved and painted chairs. An open kitchen lined with turquoise tile. Wooden shutters of the same vibrant shade shadowing the bar. Ironwork entranceway. Leather curtains (!). Crockery. The total effect rivals dining rooms like Lure and Nemo.
That attention to detail is reflected in every aspect of this Argentine-Mediterranean supper club. The purported fable that provided its name -- Spanish for "over coal" -- is inscribed on the inside cover of the menu: Apparently, one Dona Maria al Carb centsn, whose lover was lost at sea, kept the home fires burning under her cooking pots "as if the aromas would somehow bring him home again." The fragrances emanating from the wood-burning oven may not work on a dead man, but they certainly were a draw for me.
Especially those of the house-made bread. A whole-wheat dough had been baked in a terra cotta flower pot till it swelled over the top, then stabbed with breadsticks like antennae. Seeded flatbread and a variety of rolls were arranged around the construction, causing it to bear a vague resemblance to a grasshopper. Chutneys (red onion and pear), butters (spiced and plain), and herb-flavored olive oil were served with the starchy beast -- a glut reminiscent of Reagan-era dining.
Appetizers are labeled "tapas" on the menu, but empanadas, three expertly prepared half-moons of flaky pastry filled with savory ground beef, chopped egg, and vegetables, were the only starter to fit that billing. The other two dishes we ordered were served over huge piles of mixed bitter greens, making them more like salads A and also making them much bigger than we had anticipated. Both, fortunately, were delicious. The first, a seafood dish, comprised five pearl-colored baby calamari stuffed with minced shrimp and grilled, then served warm with roasted red peppers and a nicely balanced balsamic vinaigrette. The second was a composition of pungent feta cheese and kalamata olives, which had been marinated in lime and basil and were accented with tightly curled, buttery rock shrimp, ideal in their freshness and snappy texture.
Those who set out with green intentions will find plenty of creative salads, including roasted fennel and zucchini in herb dressing; caesar with sweet chili prawns or grilled chorizo; and char-grilled vegetables with pesto sauce, focaccia croutons, and smoked mozzarella. We were intrigued by the "tossed mix," which the menu advertises as containing "almost everything in it, also honey-roasted quail." That cutesy assessment turned out to be a reference to the same multitude of lettuces that had bedded the other appetizers -- chicory, red oak, and arugula, to name a few -- and that here supported the quail. Chopped into sections, the flavorful bird was surprisingly meaty, its skin sticky with honey gloss.
Seafood cassoulet was one of two soups cooked and served in a clay pot (the other was a traditional Argentine locro, which is something like a stew). This steaming, heady concoction boasted an exceptionally rich and varied amount of seafood -- succulent scallops and whole shrimp, mussels, clams, and grouper. Not a tidbit was overcooked. We were also pleased by how the soup was presented, brought as an intermediate course (between appetizers and entrees) and split into two bowls so that each side of the table could share one. To my mind, thoughtful service has always been one of the pleasures of hotel dining, and regardless of the Sheraton's new philosophy, I was glad to see it carried out here.
Our waiter was honest, steering my companion away from his perennial favorite veal chop (twelve ounces) and toward a veal steak (eight ounces, and six dollars cheaper). The veal steak -- filet mignon from a calf -- proved that, as they are in Argentina, meats are this restaurant's specialty. The boneless, juicy cut, seared with a delicate pink interior, had a less musky flavor than fully grown beef. But a tomato-guava chutney -- al Carb centsn makes a lot of chutneys -- added fruity intrigue. Surrounding the steak were chunks of roasted carrots, yams, and potatoes spiced with rosemary, and a scoop of aromatic saffron rice; these, however, tended not to contribute to the main event but to compete with it. A grown-up version of the veal steak, a fourteen-ounce bife de chorizo ("the New York cut of Buenos Aires"), however, was fabulous. The smoky, inches-thick beef took up the entire plate, rendering invisible the same side dishes that had nearly overwhelmed the veal steak.
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As too often happens in American steakhouses, a fillet of fish wasn't nearly as well prepared as the meats; we were served a hefty piece of grouper that was flaky but dull. Sauced with an ordinary lemon butter, the fish couldn't stand on its own. In this case the accompanying chutneys and starches made it a bit more interesting. Clearly, the main courses worth notice here are the heartier ones.
One thing that might dismay the potential al Carb centsn devotee: Prices match the more-is-better philosophy. But we paid ten dollars for a dessert of mixed berries with sorbet, only to discover the stewed berries were as tart as the winter air, while the sorbet had been replaced by a scoop of whipped cream.
If Peter Weber and the Sheraton company are sincere in their desire to "privatize" hotel restaurants, they might want to start by cutting their own costs and passing on those savings to their customers. Still, for an expense-be-hanged meal, I'd let the red meat lead the way to my heart.