Among countless others flying into New York’s JFK airport yesterday – many of whom, like the gal, had to waste at least an hour standing in line for the prehistoric, no-kiosk, no e-reader immigration that you cannot believe is New York – was Susanne Hatje, GM of the luxury Mandarin Oriental New York hotel. What is her secret for successful flying? Carry a neck pillow and eye-shades for the flight itself, eat and drink sparingly, and, on arrival, get outdoor exercise. As soon as she got back into the city she went for a walk in Central Park. The following day she was entertaining at lunch. You can tell from the photo, in front of the hotel’s 35th-floor lobby’s Dale Chihuly centrepiece, that she has just had two weeks’ holiday, at Germany’s version of Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, namely Sylt Island in the North Sea.
We lunched in the hotel’s Asiate, which has just gained the services of Laura Williamson MS (Master, sic, Sommelier). Formerly corporate beverage director for Jean-Georges Restaurants, she is the hotel’s new wine director. Sadly we did not do justice to her talents, at lunchtime with the temperature in the 90s outside – we did not even try the Prosecco, a Fantinel Friuli-Venezia Giulia NV. We both started with Asiate’s market salad with butter lettuce, herbs and seasonal vegetables – wow what good value, the two-course express lunch, which has this as one alternative, is $29 (by itself on the à la carte menu, the salad, with its fabulous garden-party-hat look, and yogurt dressing, is $15). Susanne Hatje went on to a Wagyu tartare and I stuck with the set menu, arugula gnocchi with burrata foam.
Up here on the 35th floor the view is sensational. This is ladies-who-lunch, at just after noon. Nearly all of them, and the equal numbers of men who munch, are Manhattan cognoscenti – tourists, and hotel guests, will not come for fine dining at lunchtime (they keep that for dinner). At breakfast, the Tony Chi-designed space is power breakfasts. We talked about the theatre that is hotel life, how every day the performance is unique. This is performance art, in fact, a ballet of servers and the participating audience. The servers know the basic steps, but then move as the situation dictates. Has any choreographer ever done a ballet of hotel life?
On my way out from this luxury hotel I look back, across Columbus Circle. There are the two towers of the Time Warner Center, rising to 55 floors, a total of 750 feet (architects were Mustafa Kemal Abadan and David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill – I have just found an article on Abadan which explains what he had in mind but, sadly, it is all in Turkish). Mandarin Oriental is in the north tower, on the right of the photo: the hotel has floors 34 through 54. No wonder the views are so sensational, both up, and down.
What does anyone want after a flight? It is very basic. A warm welcome and to be taken to your room – and of course the room is ready, that is taken for granted. There, in what is now your temporary home, someone has thought of YOU. One luxury hotel that knows how to do it right is Peninsula New York. Specially laid out for the gal is a selection of her favourite fruits – how did they know? They are whole rather than cut up, and each fruit is in perfect condition, just right for eating now. Of course there is plenty of water, and, how nice, a bottle of Ridge Zinfandel. Apparently the clever people here have asked sibling hotels around the world what this guest likes.
I also like art, particularly art that changes every time I come. Peninsula New York works with Circa 1881, an initiative that encourages private collectors temporarily to loan pieces to hotels, and public places. This is Annie Leibovitz’s 2004 photograph of Scarlett Johansson – I immediately think of that star’s stay at a Tokyo hotel during the filming of Lost In Translation, which still benefits that particular hotel many years later. I think stunning art has a similar, though more niched, effect. There are several likenesses of women around this 235-room hotel: outside the E 55th-street entrance to its Salon de Ning salon are two Old Shanghai beauties. In October a giant Grimanesa Amorós bespoke illumination, for breast cancer awareness, will be on the hotel’s exterior.
On the temporary art side there is also this collage, After the Bath, After Degas, a 2011 work by the Brazilian artist Viz Muniz. This one is set at the entrance to the gorgeous Gotham Lounge, mezzanine level above the lobby. As I arrived a scavenger hunt was taking place, with young, like juvenile, hotel guests trying to find set things around the hotel. This is a hotel for doing things, experiences par excellence. Its Peninsula Academy offerings include helicoptering to see an oyster farm on Long Island, and private visits to Broadway back-of-stage, picnics in Central Park, MOMA out of hours and the best-selling – including for hen parties – visits to a NYFD fire station. In December it converts five existing bedrooms to one 2,500 sq ft Fifth Avenue Suite, one bedroom with a giant salon and closet big enough for all the shopping you will probably do in New York.
After that retail therapy, it is a good idea to head to the luxury hotel‘s Alexandra Champalimaud-designed spa for a Biologique Récherché or ESPA treatment, or Ayurvedic by Sattva, formulated by Farida Irani. I had an amazing hour-long Sattva scrub, preceded by a foot bath. The scrub was with pink Himalayan crystal salts blended with fragonia,, limbu and tulasi, all of which was set to help circulation and minimize cellulite (hey, what’s zat?). I sure felt fabulous, anyway. How else to feel better here? Climb 36 silk-smooth wooden stairs further on up from the spa, to the rooftop, to wear Beats by Dr Dre wireless headphones – on loan here at the hotel, free during your stay – as you work out in the LifeFitness gym. Which is what I did, the moment it opened at 5.30 a.m. before attacking my divine fruit bowl, with a cup of great espresso (I also had a Cuisinart filter machine: two coffee makers is real luxury). And then it was time to leave. The BMW, Peninsula green of course, and WiFi-enabled, was driven by a man from Mali. Oh boy. He put his own music on and it was Ali Farka Touré and the blind couple, Amadou & Mariam, all the way. Wish that journey had gone on for hours.
Until Friday (July 31st, 2015), talking Hungarian food with Corinthia Budapest’s GM would have implied chatting with Thomas Fisher. Yes, says the gal, now it is time to talk Hungarian cuisine. Every one of the people chatted with on this trip to Budapest talked about gastronomy as one of the highlights not only of the city’s luxury hotels but also its culture in general. Walk anywhere in the centre of Pest and there are countless outdoor cafés summer long. It is food food and more food, and, as in Austria, cakes and coffee. At Corinthia Hotel Budapest, one of its restaurants, opening right to Erzsébet street, is leased to the Bock Bisztró company. Sit at any of the tables, glass-topped with old wine corks underneath, and look up at the blackboard showing what dishes are special today. There is also, for non-Magyar speakers, a multi-language printed menu.
It could have been difficult to get away from brown-brown and more brown. We were brought a pot of pork fat (or was it goose?) which came with raw chilis as scoops. I passed on that, and enjoyed the tasting of 2013-vintage Hungarian wines, carefully explained, and carefully poured, by a waiter in a full-height apron. First came Bott Frigyes Kadarka Garam Mente, and then Villány Kékfrankos Bock József. For my first course I had small portions of three listed starters, tomato salad, soft Vaszoly cheese, and beetroot salad. No brown so far… how long can I keep this up? Around us locals, often pairs of chic young women enjoying an evening out, came in right up to about 10.30 p.m. Things do not start early here (hotels’ gyms – no, that is gyms NOT GMs – seem to sleep until about 6.30 a.m.).
Ha, I have brown, or at least golden brown, escaping goulash or a ragout I choose half a deep-fried battered free range chicken. It comes in four bits, each deliciously battered. These, with small whole sautéed parsley potatoes, were laid in greaseproof paper in a tin bucket. I had a small side salad of marinated cucumber, as suggested by the waiter, who also thoughtfully brought a small finger bowl, with lemon in the water. I could then have gone on to a slice of dark brown Hungarian chocolate cake, Rigo Jancsi, with cocoa-whipped cream filling. However, as my grandmother used to say, enough is as good as a feast and I had dined magnificently.
But in case you think that all the food at the 415-room Corinthia Hotel Budapest is traditional, let me say quickly that there are alternatives. There is an Asian restaurant, Rickshaw, and the Club lounge, on the mezzanine gallery looking down into the marvellous marbled lobby of the building first constructed in 1896, has lots of fruit at breakfast, and crudités and dips among its generous lunchtime offerings. I actually lunched in my room as I had an article to finish. Look at the healthy salads that were listed, as such, on the room service menu. It was tempting to stay in room 3202, on the third floor of arm two, much longer anyway – the books around included William Claxton’s Steve McQueen, Terence Pitts’ stunning Edward Weston photograph compilation, and tomes on Art Nouveau and Pop Art.
I feel I am eating à la Elle McPherson, who is busily promoting her Super Elixir range of nutricosmetics, things you eat to make you even more beautiful as well as healthier. I had also eaten really healthily at the truly memorably breakfast buffet. Look down at the six-floor atrium from upper-floor corridors, and see guests down below – they go inside, to one of the interior rooms, for the big buffet, with lots of chefs. I picked up Good Morning satellite news sheets, from UK and US and also one from Russia, good for a Putin update. Bad luck gal, it was in Russian. I reverted to an old Economist instead. Around me most, anyway, were checking their smartphones, mostly iPhones. Hungarians really do not stay in Budapest hotels – I guess out of towners have friends or relatives to put them up when they need to be in the capital: those that were around me were checking Facebook or Instagram, the most popular media.
And then I headed for the pool that is one of the main features of this luxury hotel, which Corinthia converted in 2002 (it was Hotel Royal before). Spa rooms lead off the upper gallery around the pool. Brigitta, with hair remarkably like mine, did a sensational treatment and as I finished someone brought me a new key as mine would invalidate at noon. That is service. That is one reason why Eric Idle and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both of whose names are on the roll of honour in the main lobby, have recently stayed here. I left Corinthia Budapest as GM Thomas Fischer started packing – today, this very day (Monday August 3rd, 2015) this hotel has a new GM, Jean-Pierre Mifsud. Thomas Fischer is in London, but that will be another story.