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Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt Buenos Aires
C’est Magnifique!

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

The last time we saw Christophe Lorvo he was wearing  a hard hat and carefully escorting us through a construction site in Recoleta, the lovely, leafy Buenos Aires neighborhood that is often likened to Paris. The tall and dark-haired Frenchman  had recently arrived from Paris to assume the role of general manager of a property that, for the moment, was a rundown palacio on Avenida Alvear hidden behind scaffolding and fronting a huge crater that cut through the center of the city block all the way to Posadas Street at the rear. As we gingerly made our way amidst construction equipment, piles of lumber and coils of wire, he outlined his vision for the new Park Hyatt in Buenos Aires.

That was early in 2005. Now it is two years later; the Palacio Duhau has been open for some eight months. And from the moment our car pulls up in front of the white pillared palace gleaming in the morning light and we see the group of young men in black suits and white shirts before the divided balustrade that sweeps up to the main entrance, we can sense that the vision Christophe Lorvo described to us that day has been fulfilled. It is but a first impression, but one that would deepen and solidify as the Palacio Duhau experience unfolds.

More than a hotel, the property is a complex of components combined into an urban oasis. There is the five-story neo-classical palace, one of only three structures on this short stretch of Avenida Alvear. Designed in 1934 by the French architect León Dourge for the Duhau family, it is bracketed by the residence of the Vatican Embassy to Buenos Aires, silent and withdrawn on one side, and a many-gabled “haunted” house of Italianate design hidden behind trees and overgrown shrubs on the other. Behind the palace, a multi-leveled garden enclosed by stone walls descends a hillside following the natural lines of the city’s contour to a strikingly contemporary 15-story tower with an entrance on Posadas Street. A subterranean expanse beneath the garden is a gallery of fine art and an interior link between the two buildings.

click to enlarge click to enlarge

Restaurants at the rear of the palace and tower spill out onto dining terraces. Their white leather chairs and market umbrellas border the garden whose centerpiece is a waterfall that cascades down three small ponds where water lilies drift among wild grasses and calla lily plants. Meanwhile, branches of a 120-year-old rubber tree struggling for light amidst the crowded shrubbery of the “haunted house” next door have climbed over the wall and are casting dappled light on newly planted French roses and purple azaleas. Facing each other across the garden, the palace and tower belong to two different centuries and modes. Yet they comfortably co-exist in this enchanted setting, merging the traditional elegance and contemporary beat of Buenos Aires.

Looking down at the tower from a dining terrace on  the palace  - click to enlarge
Looking down at the tower from a dining terrace on  the palace
Looking up at the palace from the tower - click to enlarge
Looking up at the palace from the tower

Befitting a 21st century, five-star property in a major metropolis, each of the guest rooms and suites (23 in the palace, 142 in the tower) are deluxe, products of expert planning and high design, outfitted with state-of-the-art  communications technology and digitally operated lighting and window treatments. All enjoy splendid views be they of the garden, Posadas Street’s antique and boutique shops, or Avenida Alvea’s neo-classical palaces. Still, it is in its public spaces and especially on the Piano Nobile (main floor) of the palace that the singularity of the Palacio Duhau is most apparent.

 Since our first rough viewing, the salons of the Piano Nobile have undergone a level of  fine and detailed restoration common to museum properties. Of noble proportions, their high stone walls are punctuated with Corinthian pillars and capitals, their ceilings and arches are bordered with detailed decorative molding. Floors are inlaid parquet or Travertine marble with radiant starburst patterns in shades of green and pink running to deep burgundy. Draperies of sumptuous silk and taffeta are pulled back from the many tall windows with tasseled curtain holders; each pair is different and hand-made by an Argentine artisan. Valuable sculptures and paintings, largely Argentinian, are focal points in each room.

Yet this is not a museum where furnishings are roped off and treasures are ensconced behind glass; no watchful guards leer at every turn. The palace is a place to inhabit and enjoy. Massive carved walnut doors are portals ready for opening to the next salon. Stark-white leather sofas (from Paltrona Frau, the Italian designers of leather interiors for Maserati and Ferrari), framed in steel and illuminated by standing Baccarat chandeliers, are there to be sat upon. Seventeenth century oak wall panels with medieval and Masonic motifs, originally brought over from a Normandy castle by Mr. Duhau and now restored to their original splendor, line the walls of the Oak Bar, formerly the palace library, where in the ambience created by a wood-burning fireplace, one can recline in a comfortable tawny-colored leather chair, enjoy a choice malt liquor or cognac or even a cigar, and take in the garden view.

The Oak Bar lined with 17th century panels from Normandy - click to enlarge
The Oak Bar lined with 17th century panels from Normandy

As a child, Christophe Lorvo spent many hours at Versailles. His grandmother was the daughter of the “conservator” of the legendary residence of French kings; she  was born and raised on the property. Years later, she would often take her grandson to visit her atypical childhood home and regale him with stories of time spent amidst the trappings of royal splendor. Christophe Lorvo knows from palaces.

But even he would have to admit the jaw-dropping spectacle at the heart of the palace’s lobby stands apart. Near the entrance, a traditional salon furnished with a pair of contemporary black leather chaises  ends before a steep drop guarded by a steel railing. A horizontal passageway the size of a small stage is on the other size of the drop, while a white marble stairway rimmed with the steel railing spirals down the open space to the street level of the palace and the subterranean realm beneath. Hanging on the wall of the passageway, the painting “La Ronda” looks across the expanse like the backdrop of a play. This sizeable monochrome work by the famed Argentine artist Guillermo Roux pictures a jumbled assemblage of commedia dell arte characters in contorted poses amid a scattering of stage props. A blend of the comical and the grotesque, it sets a tone that is unsettling and at the same time exhilarating.

“All the art in the hotel is fine art. Everything old is antique. Every material is noble: wood, marble, leather, silk – nothing is fake. That is the concept of luxury,” said the effervescent Liana Vinacur as we climbed up the palace’s swirling stairway and headed through the Salon Baccarat towards the Oak Room and garden.

The marble staircase spirals down to the street level and subterranean realm below - click to enlarge
The marble staircase spirals down to the street level and subterranean realm below

Petite and fair, Liana sparkles. She wrinkles her nose when she smiles, and she smiles often. She has the air of a pretty schoolgirl, albeit a very smart one. For behind the youthful charm lies a steely resolve and keen intelligence, as Christophe Lorvo undoubtedly realized when he lured Liana away from her own successful public firm to become director of marketing and communications at the Palacio Duhau.

The sparkling director of marketing and communications Liana Vinacur - click to enlarge
The sparkling director of marketing and communications Liana Vinacur

Early on, it fell to her to introduce the property to the local community. “We had a very good strategy for the international market; we  told everyone as much as we could before the opening,” she confided.  “But for the local community, everything was sealed.” We had crossed the garden by now to a table on the dining terrace outside Gioia, the restaurant at the rear of the tower, where, judging from the number of Porteños dining al  fresco in the pleasantness of the summer afternoon, it was evident that the message to the local crowd had since gotten out. 

 “It has,” Liana laughingly conceded. “Gioia has become a very popular Buenos Aires destination; it’s a favorite place for business lunches. Although to begin with, we had a series of adventures. The day we opened, the formal ceremony was at noon, and at 4 o’clock, we opened the doors to the community. But there was such a crowd, we had to organize three or four guided tours to accommodate everyone. And it went on that way, day after day. We had to all take turns guiding the tours. Once I was walking through the art gallery and saw my poor assistant leading a group of 100 people.

“We realized we could not continue doing this indefinitely. So we ended the general tours and instead offered a tea and art tour.  First you have the afternoon tea here at Gioia, and afterwards you get a guided tour of the art gallery. It’s been very successful – and also profitable.”

Small wonder. Exuding the Italian spirit one inhales along with the air in Buenos Aires, Gioia has the size and sweep of a ballroom with 32-high foot ceilings, gleaming wooden floors, mirrored walls, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the garden, and an enormous split-level installation where an elaborate breakfast buffet and glorious lunch and dinner antipastos are laid out each day (tea being a leisurely afternoon interlude). All meals are  enhanced with offerings from an a la carte menu (one of us succumbed to the pumpkin risotto for lunch), and followed by brick-shaped flan with dulce de leche, rhubarb pie with raisins, chocolate cheesecake, tiramisu, meringue tarts, a seemingly endless variety  of impossible-to-resist desserts.

On the other side of the garden, breakfast, tea, and light meals (one excellent lunch entrée is a Salad Niçoise with tiny potatoes, quail eggs, white anchovies and strips of red pepper) are served in a pair of elegant salons on the Piano Nobile and adjacent dining terrace. The  gastronomic Duhau Restaurante is on the ground level directly below. It can be accessed not only through the garden, but from the cobble-stoned “porte cochere” on Avenida Alvear.

In contrast to the grandeur of the salons, the mood here is contemporary, almost minimalist with dark wooden floors, sleek chairs upholstered in soft fabrics of cherry red and brown, a fireplace set into a steel wall, and black taffeta drapes pulled back from windows for views of the dining terrace and garden.

Samplings of the glorious antipasto at Gioia - click to enlarge
Samplings of the glorious antipasto at Gioia

Décoration comes from a series of paintings by the Argentine artist Carlos Anesi. They are all of fowls: ducks, roosters, and geese – radiant-white and bold against an unadorned darkly rich background. Together with the chandeliers and sconces made of  curved bands of pink Murano glass -- alternately resembling flickering flames and masses of ribbons -- they evoke a playful ambience which suits the dining experience.

Food & Beverage manager German Broggi before one of the Anesi paintings - click to enlarge
Food & Beverage manager German Broggi before one of the Anesi paintings

Chef Julien Piguet - click to enlarge
Chef Julien Piguet

Julien Piguet, the young chef de cuisine who was born in Geneva, trained in Geneva and France and working at the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome when Christophe Lorvo convinced him to come to Buenos Aires, is gentle, unassuming, and enthusiastic about the challenges of his new position.

 “Our cuisine is simple but very well executed; it focuses on the product. We search out the best quality, the freshest ingredients,” Julian told us. “You know Argentina is largely a meat country. We even have Kobe beef. There’s just one producer in Argentina, and our executive chef Cyril Cheype (also a Park Hyatt Paris Vendome alumnus courtesy of Christophe Lorvo) discovered him.”

Nevertheless, this evening Chef Piguet recommended the trout from Chile. “Very fresh, very light, excellent with spinach salad,” he said. It was. The Patagonian lamb was excellent too; so was the steak accompanied by a cauliflower mousse with hazelnuts, scallions, and goat cheese – all partnered with a Malbec recommended by the engaging young sommelier Sandra Castillo. Desserts of lemon cream and lemoncello sponge cake, and white rum granite with passion fruit and coconut crisp were delicate and delectable.

“Our style of cooking is contemporary French, but our ingredients are mainly Argentinian,” Julien said, articulating, inadvertently perhaps, a credo that defines not only his kitchen, but all of the Palacio Duhau. There is an undeniable French sensibility to the property. At the same time, it is firmly  rooted in the Argentinian soil.

To us, this appears to be part of Christophe Lorvo’s original vision. Two years earlier when we toured the construction site, he pointed out a place amidst the rubble where the first wine and cheese bar on the South American continent would be built. At that time, Argentine wines were beginning to attract attention outside of the country; Argentine cheeses had no particular identity. Today they share the space of the inviting Vinoteca one walks through on the way to the Duhau Restaurante.

The Palacio Duhau has 6,500 bottles of Argentine wine; the best of the nation’s Malbecs are among them. Many rest in floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets in this beautiful room paneled in dark wood with a side door leading to a small patio where one can enjoy a glass of wine in the peacefulness of a summery evening in January. Beside the door, a deep, tall, and cold closet with bright red walls stores wheels of Argentine artisanal cheeses.

Maître Fromager Maria Martini in the cheese closet - click to enlarge
Maître Fromager Maria Martini in the cheese closet

Sommelier Sandra Castillo - click to enlarge
Sommelier Sandra Castillo

“Wine you can find everywhere, but what I missed the most whenever I lived abroad was cheese,’ Christophe told us when we joined him for a tasting. “When I first came here, I didn’t know they had such a good selection of cheeses and of such good quality. When I discovered how amazing they are, I decided we must have a cheese room here and pair it with the wine.”

The key to the cheese closet, with its 40 kinds of national cheeses and 13 French cheeses, is held by Maria Martini. “The chef and I traveled around the country to find them,” the young and attractive maître fromager told us. “We discovered many small places that produce great cheeses. Now we are trying to get these producers to age their cheeses. It is something new for them.”

“We are with cheese today the way we were wine years ago,” Christophe told us as we climbed up on stools before the tall marble table in the center of the Vinoteca. Our little group sampled a Cordon – a strong goat cheese originally from France and Marie’s favorite, a truly great and runny Argentine Brie from Cordoba, a strong Roquefort-type cheese from Mendoza cured for 15 months, and Crottin, a strong sheep cheese. “I find myself educating people,” Maria said. “They tell me ‘You make a plate of cheeses and explain how to eat them’.”

Accompanying the cheeses were Pata Negra ham from Spain (“The pigs are fed with chestnuts so it has a very sweet flavor,” Christophe said), a  pear and cinnamon marmalade and a honey with dried fruits to spread on the cheeses. Also superb breads, particularly one studded with nuts. “We have a very talented baker on the property who does our pastries as well,” he told us, adding “We found her in Paris where she was working at Alaine Ducasse’s.”

Sandra the sommelier uncorked a bottle of Malbec from Flechas de los Andes (the Herald of the Andes), an Argentine winery that opened last year which is owned by the Baroness de Rothschild and Laurent Dassault (from the family of airplane manufacturers) who are French. The oenologist, Michel Roland, is French as well.  “It is an absolute spectacular winery,” Christophe told us.

General Manager Christophe Lorvo samples a Malbec in the Vinoteca - click to enlarge
General Manager Christophe Lorvo samples a Malbec in the Vinoteca

Expertly, he smelled the bouquet of the Malbec, held his glass to the light, and swirled the liquid gently before taking a sip and pronouncing his satisfaction. “Here in Argentina, I have learned so much more about wines,” he said.

In his quest to make the Palacio Duhau a reflection of its setting instead of a repository for elegant foreign imports, the general manager has also learned so much more about the nation that has become home to him and his family. Rejecting the idea of importing a well known French brand for hotel amenities, he insisted on finding a local purveyor and discovered Celedonio.

A 37-year old iconoclast artist, designer and architect with a spiritual turn of mind (he did the fashion accessories for “Sex and the City”), Celedonio Lohidoy designs jewelry out of semi-precious stones that are threaded and formed into necklaces, brooches and rings by a small group of craftsmen in an atelier on the top floor of a Buenos Aires building that could be the set for a production of “La Bohème.” They’re sold in a small showroom on Avenida Alvear and also in Jane Eadie’s in New York City’s newest come-back-to-life neighborhood, Nolita. But Celedonio came to Christophe Lorvo’s attention as a designer of fragrances, and he enlisted him to create the hotel’s beautifully packaged toiletries as well as the aroma with a hint of cedar that wafts through the air of the Palacio Duhau.

Christophe’s wife Alicia told us that ironically it was the devastating economic crisis of 2001 that gave rise to a burst of creativity in Buenos Aires, particularly in the realm of art and design. After the economic upheaval, many people became entrepreneur artisans and designers working out of their homes; many products in the hotel come from such sources -- the curtain holders for draperies in the palace salons and the ceramic plates used in the Vinoteca are among them. “These plates are not necessarily sturdy,” Alicia said. “They might crack or chip more easily than the standard fare so they have to be replaced more often. But they are so unique, such a change from the typical white plate.”

She added, “There is a very strong aesthetic sense in the Argentine culture. The nation is so into design, and it took on such a leap in the wake of the crisis.”

Despite dire forecasts and the warnings of friends and family, Daniel Maman opened his art gallery at the height of the economic downturn. And despite all odds, it took off.  Today one of the best known galleries in Buenos Aires, Daniel Maman Fine Art provides paintings and sculptures by Argentinian  artists for the hotel’s Paseo de las Artes. The underground gallery which links the palace to the tower not only adds to the Palacio Duhau’s significant permanent collection, it is a featured player in Recoleta’s popular Gallery Night held the last Friday of the month when the neighborhood’s galleries stay open late, and people spend the evening going from one to another.

A walk through the Paseo de las Artes can be a journey through more than a century of Argentine art and history. Before the late 19th century there was little art, we learned. The influence was entirely European – mostly Italian and French. “Until the mid 1920s, artists felt the need to go abroad to study. But that has changed,” Valeria, a fine arts student and our informed guide told us. “Now there seems to be enough of a heritage to stay here. I would like to go to Italy, Spain, and France to see the cradle of so many movements, but I don’t feel I have to. There is enough respect for our own things.

Part of the Palacio Duahau’s permanent collection: Juan Battle Planas’  “Images of the Neighborhood - click to enlarge
Part of the Palacio Duahau’s permanent collection: Juan Battle Planas’  “Images of the Neighborhood

 “You can say that Argentine art, like the country itself, is open to everything,” she continued. “Whatever comes, we take and make our own,” Which must account for the wide range and style of the works represented here, the variety of schools and materials. Interestingly, some of the more recent paintings seem influenced by indigenous South American cultures. There is little evidence of an Indian heritage in Buenos Aires, but it does appear in the hotel’s Ahin spa named for  the ceremony used by the Mapuche Indians of southern Argentina to honor guests.

Located on the subterranean level of the palace, the fitness studio, spa suites and 82-foot swimming pool exude an air of spirituality, peacefulness, and self renewal. To have a massage while listening to the haunting melodies of “Andes music” played on the panpipes is to be transported to another realm altogether.

Paola Morselli, a personal butler - click to enlarge
Paola Morselli, a personal butler

But then again, a stay alone at the Palacio Duhau transports one to another realm for many reasons, not least among them the people who comprise its staff. Every one of them goes beyond the expected to assure a guest’s comfort and pleasure. One does not encounter a doorman, receptionist, chambermaid, bellman, waiter, bartender without a smile and greeting. Every request is handled expertly and efficiently. And then there are the personal butlers – to handle a myriad of details from getting clothes ironed, to shoes shined, to scouting the best store on Posadas Street for that special leather bag, to even  organizing a complicated dinner meeting.
Great effort went into the assemblage of such a star cast, Christophe assured us. A mass recruitment effort result in 10,000 CVs which were narrowed down to 2,000 interviews with 45 Park Hyatt department heads, directors and human resources people before the last round with the general manager himself who interviewed six people at the same time to see how they interacted with one another. There followed six weeks of training. “In Europe and the United States there would be two weeks, in Asia four weeks,” Christophe said. “Getting the right people was very important for us.”

Some of the folk who make up the “best staff” of Christophe Lorvo’s career - click to enlarge
Some of the folk who make up the “best staff” of Christophe Lorvo’s career

The result?

click to enlarge

“It is the best staff I’ve had in my career.”

We thought back to our first impression of the young men waiting to escort arriving guests into the palace’s Piano Nobile. Another first impression greets the guests who enter through the street level cobblestone-paved court and immediately confront a black metallic statue of a Spanish noblewoman, her voluminous skirts standing stiffly apart from her body. Faceless, with just an abstract suggestion of hair, she suggests an Andy Warhol take of a figure from Valesquez “Las Meninas.” On the one hand, the statue suggests elegance and royalty, but then again, it seems not to take itself too seriously. A combination of attitudes that seems to define the experience of staying at this exceptional property where exquisite French know-how merges with the essences of this country that is endlessly fascinating. 

Palacio Duhau
Park Hyatt Buenos Aires
Avenida Alvear 1661
Buenos Aires, Argentina

Phone: 54 11 5171 1234 

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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