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It Might As Well Be Spring: Washington, D.C.'s Park Hyatt

Park Hyatt Hotel, D.C. Enterence - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Park Hyatt Hotel, D.C. Entrance
Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge

“Welcome to the nation’s capital,” said Paul Pisarz, general manager of DC’s Park Hyatt Hotel.  It was nearly three weeks after the Inauguration, and the mood in Washington was upbeat, filled with the kind of anticipation one feels at the first hint of spring. And spring was definitely in the air this “Ground Hog Day.” Even though the creature reportedly saw his shadow and retreated to hibernate for another two months of winter, the sun was shining, the temperature was in the 50’s, and newly planted golden pansies were blooming in the garden outside the hotel.

The 14 year-old Park Hyatt on 24th and M is smack in the middle of Washington’s West End.  Less than two decades ago, this area was a wasteland of run-down roadhouses and parking lots including a garage for towed automobiles. Today it’s a glittering neighborhood of upscale hotels, offices, and residences. The wonder is it languished for so long considering Georgetown is a mere two-block and over-the-bridge walk from the Park Hyatt; the Mall begins three blocks to the south, Dupont Circle four blocks to the north, and Rock Creek Park is virtually around the corner. The adjacent neighborhood is Foggy Bottom, where the foreign service types hang out.

But this is one hotel that has more than location to recommend it. Designed by the distinguished architectural firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill, it is an example of solid 1980’s modernism restrained by the eight-story height limitation imposed on Washington buildings and softened by a dreamy Southern garden out front whose triple-tiered fountain was splashing away this promise-of-spring day. Interior and exterior are linked by a two-story atrium-like entrance and the repeated use of granite, glass, marble, and red brick throughout this extraordinarily beautiful hotel.

Atrium-like entrance to Washington’s Park Hyatt Hotel - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Atrium-like entrance to Washington’s Park Hyatt Hotel - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge

Pink marble, copper-colored mirrors, and bird’s eye maple - a blonde, burled wood whose prohibitive cost would preclude such lavish use today - dominate the Park Hyatt’s soaring lobby. Intimate conversation areas are furnished in Oriental décor.  In the center of the hall, a circular pedestal table, its mirror-smooth surface looking like shattered green glass, holds an enormous vase filled with yellow daisies, yet another harbinger of spring. The Park Hyatt is a busy gathering place for diplomats, government officials, leaders of finance and industry. As we check in, a segment of “Sixty Minutes” is being taped in one of the Ambassador Suites. Yet our first impression is one of utter calm, an almost Zen-like serenity. 

The spaciousness of the lobby belies the Park Hyatt’s actual size.  There are only 224 rooms, 135 of which are suites. We are lucky enough to get one of them, an expansive and smartly furnished two-room arrangement that overlooks the spires of Georgetown University. Done up in earthy shades of olive, rust and gold with a creamy vanilla bathroom, burlap-covered walls, and surfaces of granite and marble, it epitomizes the Park Hyatt experience, combining the personalized comforts of a European boutique property and the streamlined efficiency of a large American hotel.  Efficient yes, but never institutional.  There are no long dark corridors leading to rooms; after a short distance, hallways angle into another direction. There are no cluttered housekeeping trolleys; linens and supplies are stored in attractive armoires. Small touches of whimsical luxury appear throughout – even in the elevators which have red-velvet benches of the kind seen in 19th century Madrid palaces that have been converted into apartment houses.

When we first arrived at the Park Hyatt, our attention was drawn to two enormous framed pictures hanging in a sitting area half a level up from the front desk. From a distance, they looked like abstract evocations of flowers and birds. Later on we checked them out. They were a pair of George Braque’s, signed woodblock prints named “Si Je Mourais la-bas (If I Should Die There)” after a poem written by Guillame Apollinire for his beloved from the front lines during World War I.

As we were to discover, this hotel – one of six Park Hyatts in the United States – possesses a considerable number of contemporary paintings, tapestries, lithographs, and woodcuts that are displayed throughout the lobby and main floor. The primary collection is from the Washington Color Painters, a school of the 1950’s and 60’s that produced large scale paintings of intense color. Kenneth Noland’s “The Seeing Eye,” a geometrical study in an especially vivid hue, is one major example. But artists like Frank Stella, Alexander Calder, Joan Miro, Henri Matisse, and David Hockney are represented as well.

By the time we learned the Park Hyatt doubles as a mini-museum, we had already discovered not only the pair of George Braque’s but the Picasso as well. There was a tapestry in black and white on the wall outside the restaurant that, to our untutored eyes, looked like a Picasso. But of course it couldn’t be, we thought, as we casually stepped up to read the identification tag.  After Braque and Picasso, it was easy to imagine works by Matisse and Miro might be just beyond the bend.

In addition to contemporary prints and paintings, the Park Hyatt art collection includes 19th and 20th century Chinese wood sculptures, including a massive structure of a goddess sitting on a mythical-looking lion, set off to dramatic effect in recesses and stair landings. One would hardly expect to see such a quantity and range of quality art in a hotel.

At one time, one would hardly expect to find a great restaurant in a hotel either.  But in recent years, that much has changed. Many hotels feature outstanding dining establishments. In New York there is Alain Ducasse at the Essex House and Lespinasse at the St. Regis, to name but two. In Washington, there is the four star Melrose at the Park Hyatt.

The Melrose’s vaulted, softly lit room is coolly contemporary. Windows twenty-two feet high line its length, looking out onto the garden; once again the line between interior and exterior is blurred, particularly in warm weather when the garden is set for outdoor dining. The broad windowsills and balustrade separating the levels of the two-story space are pink granite. The carpeting, chairs and wall coverings blend shades of mauve, plum, and apple green. On every table a goldfish bowl stands filled with black rocks and holding a single daisy.

 We are seated in the far corner against a pair of windows that face the entire room.  For us it’s perfect. Not for DC political figures who are regulars at Melrose, our server Kerri tells us.  Even though the restaurant has become the place to be seen, they prefer minimum visibility when dining out. Personalities of such varied stripes as Conzuela Rice, Vernon Jordan, and William Christopher are frequent diners here, Kerri tells us, although – she quickly adds - not at the same table.

That Melrose has stepped up to become an award-winning destination restaurant drawing from the larger DC area as much as from hotel guests  - is laid at the feet of Brian McBride who came to Melrose in 1987 and moved up to the position of Executive Chef in 1993.

All through dinner, we could sense the imprint of this individualistic, creative chef.  There was the spicy and decidedly Asian tuna tartar with quail egg and wasabi roe, the Southern-style grilled jumbo shrimp beneath a puree of crab meat and creamy white sauce, the so-light-it-was-almost-ephemeral ravioli filled with pheasant foie gras accompanied by cranberries and – how’s this for something different - a puree of dates in a double consommé reduction, the Thai calamari with lemon grass, mint, and jalapeno peppers that strangely but appealingly blended Asian and Mexican flavors.

After committing to such interesting and delectable starters, we deliberated for a while over the entrée selections. The lacquered duck breast with fennel puree, prime filet, a complex vegetarian menu that would delight our sons were all tempting. But finally we decided on red trout in a reloude and -  no surprise here - crab cakes. The red trout tasted more like salmon than brook trout. Moist and flavorful, it was accompanied by a delicious potato parmesan in a cabernet reduction. The crab cakes that came with crisp asparagus were outstanding. “They outsell everything else both at lunch and dinner,” Kerri said. “The Washingtonian picked us as making the best crab cakes.”

Melrose’s Executive Chef Brian McBride.  Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Melrose’s Executive Chef Brian McBride
Photo by Harvey Frommer
Click to Enlarge

“Somehow we always have crab cakes when we’re in DC,” we told Brian when he stopped by our table. “After all, it’s practically in Maryland.”

“I cannot tell a lie,” Brian said. “The crab is from Louisiana.”

“Not Maryland?”

“At this time of the year, the best crab comes from Louisiana."

Inadvertently, the laid back and modest New Jersey-born chef had revealed one of the tricks of his trade: “We use the freshest and best ingredients we can buy and do minimal preparation to allow the natural flavors to come out,” he told us. “The international influences come from the people we have in the kitchen: Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, so a little bit of their mix works into ours.”

Clearly the Asian influence is a consequence of Brian’s training as well.  Before coming to the Park Hyatt, he worked at the Hyatt in Cambridge, Massachusetts in an Asian restaurant that’s no longer there. “I was the only American in the kitchen,” he confessed. “We did everything from scratch. We made Peking Duck in the old three day method.”

What Brian likes about working at the Park Hyatt is “they let me do what I want. No corporate promotions. I run my own show. As long as they let me do that, I’ll be here.

“We do a huge social business,” he added, “but we do all the food ourselves. No caterers can come in.  And I have a kosher kitchen as well sanctioned by a meshgiach (a person who certifies food is kosher).

 “I can cook a mean kosher meal. I don’t cook like your mother and grandmother because I could never make it taste the way she did.  But I can do our style: contemporary entrees like sea-bass, rare tuna, poultry, rib eye roast or steak, an osso-buco style dish made from shoulder. For dessert, I do non-dairy creams soufflés.  Sometimes we’ll have as many as three weddings and bar mitzvahs a weekend.

            “We give kosher food a good name,” Brian smiled as we tucked away this surprising feature of the Park Hyatt for possible future reference.

Park Hyatt, DC - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Park Hyatt, DC - Photo by Harvey Frommer
Click to Enlarge

            Earlier in the day general manager Paul Pisarz had told us the hotel was recognized throughout the DC region as having the finest food and service in catered affairs. After meeting Brian and getting a sense of his scope and talent, we could see where that came from.

We were meeting with Paul to witness Park Hyatt’s participation in a national program called “Shadow Day” in honor of the aforementioned Ground Hog’s Day. Children from local Washington schools with aspirations of entering the hospitality field had arrived early in the morning and after a complete Park Hyatt breakfast went up to housekeeping where they were outfitted with specially made uniforms. 

They were then assigned to a hotel professional whom they “shadowed” for the day. We saw young clerks behind the front desk, little doormen at the entrance, junior chefs in the kitchen.

In the hallway, we met 11 year-old Edgar. Engineer-for-the-day “because it was the last job left,” Edgar, after a while of shadowing assistant chief engineer Karl Kriegel and seeing the computer operations in the engineering office, decided this is the kind of job he’d like to have one day. At the entrance to Melrose, we met 10 year-old John in a penguin uniform. Greeter-for-the-day, John told us he learned why each table in the restaurant gets a number. “That’s how we know which table gets which food.”

The children we saw participating in Shadow Day were a reflection of DC’s multi-ethnic population. So is the staff, said Paul who came to the Park Hyatt, “my dream hotel”  five months ago from the divisional office in New York. “I was born in England. Karl is Italian. One of our bellmen is from Ethiopia. Ritu, our hostess in Melrose, is the daughter of people who came here from Bombay.

“In the 1960’s when I began working in this industry in New York, catering waiters were largely German. Then the shift was to Italian. Today I look around at a hotel staff that is multi national. We have a large populace of Cambodians and Vietnamese, especially in housekeeping. Our employees cafeteria reflects the desires and needs of many different groups.” And, as Brian later told us, they influence his cooking as well.

We thought about this as we drove to the airport the next morning. There was a chill in the air. Winter was not yet ready to depart. But the springtime mood that permeated our stay the Park Hyatt lingered. It all seemed of a piece: children of new immigrants learning the hotel trade; a hotel staff with a myriad of ethnic backgrounds, some first generation, others with roots in America that went way back; a top-of-the-line yet mainstream all-American hotel with a four-star award-winning restaurant that does gourmet kosher catering; and, as Paul Pisarz mentioned, an increasingly international clientele. How fitting it all seemed especially in the wake of the orderly transference of power that took place, practically within shouting distance of the Park Hyatt, just a few weeks ago. How apropos that all this should be happening in one of the premier properties - of the nation’s capital.

The Park Hyatt Washington, D.C.
1201 24th Street N.W.
Washington, DC 20037

Phone: 202-789-1234

Melrose
(at the Park Hyatt Washington, D.C.)

Phone: 202-955-3899

Open for lunch daily 11:30am to 2:30pm; dinner daily 5:30pm to 10:30pm; Sunday Brunch 11:30am to 2:30pm.

All major credit cards accepted

Photos 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
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

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

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