By the time I registered for the course, the Embassy Suites was pretty much already booked for the week, except for a couple of rooms that were a bit more expensive than my company was willing to pay for. Since I was also unwilling to pay the difference, I ended up booking a room at a cheaper hotel nearby, called the Phoenix Inn.
My room at the Phoenix Inn is officially the nicest hotel room I've ever stayed in during my limited travel experience. I base this fact on the following points:
- There is a microwave
- There is a mini-fridge (empty, but available for use)
- The TV gets Food Network
- The hotel offers free continental breakfast
- There are "fresh-baked" cookies available in the evening
- They have wi-fi Internet access
- The Internet access is free
- The Internet access actually works
Some of you may remember my wife's and my recent trip to Las Vegas. I don't believe I went into much, if any detail on our room and stay at the MGM Grand. Of the eight above points, the MGM Grand only met #6. If I could go back and rebook our hotel, I would have chosen Ceasar's Palace instead, which was the same price at the time. I have no doubt the room features would have been at least as abysmal, but at least we would have had better places to eat.
Now, let me talk about the Embassy Suites Biltmore hotel. It's a nice place. It's a really nice place. I would love to have stayed there. Fortunately, it was only a ten minute walk from my own hotel. If I had felt lazy enough, I even found that the two hotels share a bus route. I am pretty cheap though, so I was glad to discover that the Phoenix Inn offers a free airport shuttle, while the Biltmore lets you know on their site that cab fare from the airport is only about $20. And did I mention that wi-fi at the Biltmore is $10/day?
Still, I loved being there for the conference. The inside of the Biltmore is just plain classy. There are pools and stone walkways all over, and the hotel rooms look from the outside almost like really classy apartments, with the doors on the inside of the building instead of the outside. The rails reminded me of Radio City Music Hall. And of course, it would seem that Omaha Steaks has set up a nice little steakhouse as the hotel restaurant. Perhaps I set my initial expectations a little high.
A continental breakfast was covered in the price of the conference, as was lunch. Breakfast was better than at my hotel, at least on the first day. They offered pastries and fresh fruit, coffee and fruit juice. My hotel offered things like sausage and eggs, both perfectly round and manufactured. But things took a turn for the worse when we were ready for lunch.
From the sounds of it, the location in which we were supposed to be served lunch changed several times that morning. When noon hit, we all made our way over to a particularly empty-looking area, and milled around until somebody asked an employee and we were directed to a private room on the other side of the restaurant.
Each place setting already had a salad sitting at it, and a glass each of ice water and iced tea. No other drink options were offered, and since tea tends to taste like a bale of hay to me, I contented myself with the water. The salad consisted of: poorly cut Romaine lettuce, the occassional shred of purple cabbage, a few carrot matchsticks, and two slices of tomato. The dressing was unlabelled, but apparently some house Italian blend. The only thing that impressed me about the salad was that they used Romaine, rather than iceberg. The only thing that impressed me about the dressing was that it wasn't ranch. Everything else about the two was nothing short of insulting. For a hotel that nice, I was a little surprised that the chef couldn't be bothered to come up with anything that was the least bit original or interesting.
There were also rolls at the table, which weren't particularly bad. Unfortunately, they weren't anything special either. I only bothered with one. As we finished our salads, the waiters would take away our salad plates and replace them with our entrees. This was done in shifts. First, about half of the entrees were brought out from the kitchen. Then most of the other half were delivered. Two people were still without theirs, including the instructor and myself. We waited for a considerable time before ours were brought. When they finally arrived, our instructor's was wrong. He had specified, apparently several times, that he needed a low-fat version. In this case, that would have meant simply leaving the cheese off of the Monterey chicken. This was not done. When he mentioned it to the waiter, he told him that another salad would be perfectly okay, and that they didn't need to do anything else special for him. The waiter took the plate away and came back some time later with the same entree as the rest of us had, minus the chicken but with extra polenta. The plate was announced somewhat curtly as the "vegetarian" entree. The vegetables were swimming in clarified butter, and definitely not "low fat".
Let me give you some more detail about this entree. It was Monterey chicken, as I mentioned. It was well-seasoned, and reasonably well-cooked, if perhaps a little overdone. It came with two triangles of something that looked like cornbread, but were actually polenta. If you were expecting cornbread as the rest of the class apparently was, you would be sorely disappointed. If you were expecting polenta, it wasn't bad. But it was also nothing special, other than it was lighter than most polenta. It also came with vegetables: sliced carrots, zucchini and yellow squash, soaked in clarified butter. The carrots were undercooked, and the contrast to the other vegetables which were well-cooked, was jarring. And I don't know if I've mentioned this lately, but I'm really getting sick of the zucchini/yellow sqaush/carrot cop-out. Why would you go to all the trouble of putting together a nice plate otherwise, and then make the vegetables such an obvious afterthought?
Dessert wasn't much of a surprise. It was chocolate mousse, piped with a star tip into a nice, stemmed glass, with a fresh piece of strawberry and a little bit of whipped cream on top, and raspberry preserves on the bottom. Does anyone see the problem here? That's right, the chef should have either used fresh raspberry on top, or strawberry preserves on the bottom. It's helpful to the diner to have the garnish represent a key ingredient elsewhere. The mousse itself tasted like Hershey's syrup. Not bad, but this was supposed to be a nice restaurant. One of the things that seperates the Charlie Trotters of the world from the McDonalds of the world is that little extra touch, the bit of class that shows that the chef really cares about his food. I wanted to ask if the chef had been hired straight from Applebees.
Our continental breakfast the next day was the same, except with manufactured-tasting quickbreads instead of delicious pastries. I was beginning to feel a little more jaded. But lunch on day two, that was where it got really disappointing.
We had a different waiter. He actually seemed to enjoy his job a little, and was interested in making sure we were content. Not happy, I suppose, just content. Again, we had pre-filled ice water and iced tea glasses, and no other drink choices. Our salad was not laid out immediately, and when it came it was, and I kid you not, a pile of poorly-cut Romaine lettuce, and two tomatoes that had been dipped in that ghastly dressing. That was it. I gave mine to the girl sitting next to me, who had arrived after the salads were passed out. It wasn't just insulting anymore, it was just a joke.
This time, we had two special requests. Our instructor had requested that his entree be served to him without the gravy. This was done promptly, and he was happy with it. But the little Indian girl next to me (dot, not feather) had more cultural concerns. The entree was pork, which she would not be eating any more than beef. She told us that chicken was okay, but no other meats. When we told the waiter this, he thought that they were talking about me, and they tried to give her my plate. We corrected him, and he gave the plate to me, and then disappeared for a very long time before returning with exactly the same entree as everyone else, but with a piece of Monterey chicken about half the size of one of the two chicken breasts that had been served the day before.
Now, the entree was a pork chop, bone-in. It was huge. It was nearly the size of my fist. To say that it was tough would be like calling New York City a small village. I have never seen a piece of meat so overcooked, and I've burned some meats pretty badly. You would never know this, of course, because it looked prefectly colored and perfectly tasty. I immediately discovered the texture of the meat when I tried to cut into it when I tried to cut into it with the provided butterknife. It took nearly a minute to make my first cut, and when I took a bite, the only hint of moisture was from the untrimmed chunks of fat on the side. It was as if the chef was purposely and personally mocking me. The mashed potatoes were decent, but I didn't even bother with the carrot, zucchini and yellow squash medley. I made it halfway through my hunk of pork before giving up and leaving the table. I didn't bother waiting for dessert.
I don't know what our food will be like tomorrow, but I'm not expecting much. I'm still debating whether to go to lunch with the group, or walk over to the California Pizza Kitchen in the nearby Biltmore Fashion Park and endure their Wolfgang Punk-wannabe menu. As a consumer, I'm disappointed to say the least with the service and food at the Omaha Steakhouse at the Embassy Suites Biltmore. As a chef, I'm just plain disgusted. Food and service have taken a back seat to literally everything else at this hotel restaurant. I still wouldn't mind staying at the hotel, but I'm glad that there's an Arbys less than a mile away so that I won't starve.