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An Impressive Starwood Presence in Buenos Aires:
The Sheraton Hotel & Convention Center ad the Part Tower Hotel

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

It’s an evening in February, 7:30 p.m., and the sun in Buenos Aires has yet to set. From the 22nd floor of our suite in the Sheraton Hotel and Convention Center, we look out on an eastern sky where the reflected sunlight on the Rio de la Plata, the wide South American estuary that empties into the Atlantic, is just becoming visible. In the distance, sail boats bob blissfully, background to an old freighter being pulled by a little tugboat into port. Further out, a gigantic cruise ship gracefully glides towards the shore. It will rest at anchor through the night, its lights all a-twinkle like a star-filled castle. When we awake in the morning, it will be gone.

Directly below us, cars speed along the highway; a seemingly abandoned freight train rests on the railroad tracks; there’s an old customs house catching the low sun’s rays and piles of loading materials and idle cranes on the long, bending docks. Turning to the window facing north, we see rows of railroad tracks, plazas and parks, apartment buildings, office towers, and industrial plants merging into a jumbled urban landscape. We are on the very edge of this magical city where it’s summer in winter and so many things seem upside down.

With its back to the estuary, the Sheraton complex enjoys a commanding presence in downtown Buenos Aires. The entire city spreads out before the 24-story, 739-room Hotel and Convention Center and the adjoining 23-story, 181-room Park Tower, part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection. The two properties are distinct yet connected. Restaurants and lounges are easily accessible to guests at either hotel.  Moreover both share a fitness center whose size and range of facilities is exceptional for a downtown hotel. An indoor spa with massage rooms, sauna, glass-walled gym and lap pool compliments an outdoor area of tennis courts and trapezoid-shaped swimming pool surrounded by chaises and outdoor dining sets. At the level of the trees in the Plaza Fuerza Aérea Argentina across the way, it provides a perfect view of the iconoclastic Georgian clock tower, a gift from England in 1916. Were this landmark and other sights of a great city not literally at the Sheraton’s doorstep, one might content him or herself with the splendid offerings of the hotel and never leave the premises. But as it happens, the delights of downtown Buenos Aires: the extensive green plazas, broad boulevards, and shop-lined pedestrian avenues are right across the way.

On a tour of the Convention Center with the lovely, 29-year-old Cecilia Bauzá, who handles public relations for the Sheraton, we get a sense of the property’s vastness, its meeting rooms and ballrooms that can accommodate more than 3,000 people, the interconnected hallways, stairways, elevator banks -- all meticulously maintained. “It is so spacious,” says Cecilia. “Even though there may be thousands of people in the Sheraton, you never feel the clutter or the crowds.”

And there was a substantial crowd. The international IBM convention was but one of the ongoing gatherings that took place during our stay, many of their attendees staying at the Sheraton. Smartly uniformed pilots and flight attendants from Iberia, Air France, Alitalia, and Air Canada could be seen briskly walking across the gleaming, capacious lobby at all hours. And then there were the leisure travelers at the start or conclusion of cruises to South American ports or simply visiting Argentina during its busy summer season. Yet, as Cecilia said, there was never a sense of mass tourism, no long lines at registration or check-out desks, no piles of luggage filling the entryway, no crowds waiting for the elevators – and this despite the fact that both hotels were full.

The young public relations official came to Buenos Aires from a small city in the province of Cordoba. “My family still lives there, in the center of Argentina,” Cecilia told us. “We are a typical Argentine mix of Spanish, Italian and French,” she added. “The Italian branch is from the south, Sicily and Palermo. Every Sunday we’d go to my Italian grandmother’s house for pasta.”

While nothing can compare to her grandmother’s cooking, Cecilia has found an excellent substitute on-site in the Sheraton’s festive Cardinale restaurant, a popular destination for porteños (people from Buenos Aires) where southern Italian specialties from pastas to pizzas to prosciutto are offered buffet style in an informal trattoria-style setting.

Virtually around the lobby corner is the more formal Aljobe whose kitchen focuses on typical Argentine preparations and whose rich décor in shades of ocher, rose and plum with original oil paintings of the Argentine countryside hanging on the walls -- they all depict scenes from a book by the well-known writer Martin Firriro -- evokes a traditional mood. A huge hotel and conference center may be right outside the door, but seated a table in this open and at the same time intimate space, such a world seems very far away.

Following an amuse bouche of  paté with cheese and caviar, our party of three selected different dishes so each could sample different specialties like the salad of avocado with tiny tomato tartar, sautéed shrimps and crawfish; a briny oyster soup with lots of garlic; and a red mullet salad in a tangy vinaigrette accompanied by ratatouille. For entrées, one of us had the delicate Pacific salmon from Chile, while the other two opted for the famed Argentinian Angus beef. Tender enough to be cut with a butter-knife, the grilled steaks were served with chimichuri, a powerful mixture of parsley, chili, oil and vinegar, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and olives.

We had our first Malbec at this dinner, a 2002 vintage produced by Ricardo Santos, a well known wine-maker for nearly fifty years. This staple of Argentinean grapes produces a dry, yet fruity and not full bodied wine. We thought it was excellent.

The Aljobe staff - click to enlarge
The Aljobe staff
Diners from Korea - click to enlarge
Diners from Korea

Our dinner at Aljobe was enlivened by a party of Koreans who were celebrating the birthday of one of the women. After her candle-lit cake arrived to the singing of “Happy Birthday,” everyone in the dining room burst into spontaneous applause. She then stood up and with the utmost graciousness, thanked everyone and explained that her group had arrived on the QE II that day. Subsequently, she personally delivered a piece of cake to each diner. Later still, another of her group, a younger woman and her father, came over to our table. He is a scientist, she told us, and she is accompanying him on this trip to South America. The modesty and gentle demeanor of these people added a welcome and memorable note to our trip.

After a few days at the Hotel and Conference Center, we crossed its vast lobby and passed through glass doors into the more intimate and deluxe Park Tower. A few days before, we’d come by to witness the press conference held by President Chavez of Venezuela, in town for an official visit. The Park Tower is the kind of place where visiting presidents hold press conferences. It is also the kind of place where movie stars, business tycoons, sporting figures, and the like are to be found. And Julian Valla has seen them all.

The corpulent and exuberant chief concierge who started his career as doorman in 1996 has hundreds of stories and delights in telling them. A favorite concerns the time Brad Pitt stayed in the Park Tower’s Presidential Suite. “It was in 1997,” Julian told us. “Seven Years in Tibet was being filmed in Mendoza which is 700 kilometers from here; some  parts of the movie were actually filmed in Buenos Aires. One day Brad Pitt came back from Mendoza with seven dogs. Guess who he put in charge of walking them? There I was walking the boulevards of Buenos Aires holding the leashes to seven dogs. After a while, I was down to one white dog, the one he named Blanco Canguras. He’d shipped the others to his home in the United States, but he kept this one with him for the rest of the time he was in Argentina.”

Julian has welcomed former president Bill Clinton, the legendary soccer star Pele, Luciano Pavarotti, and more rock stars, movie stars, politicos, and CEOs than he can remember. “I do all the arranging from restaurant reservations, to tango shows, to hiring helicopters and private boats. The hotel is the attraction for all these people. The rooms, the suites, the butler service make it the best.”

Chief Concierge Julian Valla - click to enlarge
Chief Concierge Julian Valla

and fellow concierge Gustavo A. Gallo - click to enlarge
and fellow concierge Gustavo A. Gallo

Designed to spoil even the most exacting of guests, the Park Tower’s butler service has a charming individual at the ready 24 hours a day to provide whatever personal service one requires from unpacking a suitcase to pressing a garment to shining a pair of shoes. It is one of the hotel’s most distinctive features. So is the Crystal Garden, its bi-level sky-lit dining room whose glass wall overlooks downtown Buenos Aires.

Cecilia joined us for breakfast in the Crystal Garden where an elaborate buffet displays all the standard choices as well as Argentine specialties that include exotic tropical fruits, flavored honeys and butters, and dulce de leche, milk cooked with sugar till the sugar burns and the combination becomes a thick, creamy mixture the color of caramel. Until we had it at the Crystal Garden, dulce de leche was just an ice cream flavor. Now we know the real thing, and it is irresistible.

As public relations manager, Cecilia is responsible for promoting the Sheraton and Park Tower’s unique aspects. Among them is the Crystal Garden’s chef, Samantha Leske. “As a woman, Samy is a rarity in Buenos Aires. She’s the first woman chef at the Sheraton,” Cecilia said. “I’ve gotten her exposure on television, in newspapers and magazines. She’s quite a celebrity.”

In her toque blanc, Samy appears every inch the chef, her gender and youth notwithstanding. Of German descent, direct and friendly in manner, Samy told us her original ambition was to be an astronaut. “But by the time I finished my secondary school, I knew I wanted to be a cook although I had no idea about hotels and these kinds of kitchens.”

After training in France and Italy, Samy returned to Buenos Aires and began working in the Sheraton training program. “It involved more than cooking. I had to studying hygenics and chemistry, buying and management. But I knew this was where I wanted to be.”

Overseeing a staff of seven, the young, ebullient chef with a decided preference for Mediterranean cuisine is taking advantage of a growing interest in fine dining. “The interest has always been there,” she said, “and Buenos Aires has always had a reputation for good food. But now people are more interested in what they are eating and drinking. We have to be prepared for that.”

Samy claims to have been inspired by her mother and grandmother. “Both were great cooks. When I was little, my grandmother would stand me on a little stool and teach me how to cook. When I decided to become a cook, however, my parents were taken back. But they love it now.”

She enjoys going to the market to see what is available and delights in designing the Crystal Garden’s menu, changing it three times a year. “I love to prepare leg of lamb,” she told us. “I marinate it for 48 hours with rosemary, garlic, lemon and lavender. Then it is roasted in the oven with a little white wine and presented with a salad of watercress and roasted crunchy potatoes.”

The lamb is a feature of Samy’s winter menu, but as it was February, the middle of the summer, we unfortunately could not try her signature dish. Still we found no cause for complaint in the mesculin salad with camembert and turkey, blackberries and cranberries – the tartness of the berries a delightful counterpoint to the greens and strong creamy cheese; the seafood tain – shrimps, clams, and mussels with microgreens; delicate ravioli in a light tomato basil sauce; rich and creamy leek soup with chopped chives; and the superb medallion of tenderloin with roasted, unpeeled potatoes, crispy on the outside and soft within, topped with sautéed onions and chives. And who could argue with chocolate mousse and hazelnuts atop rice pudding in a martini glass or a globe of vanilla ice cream over wedges of cooked apple? 

Cecilia Bauzá handles public relations for the complex - click to enlarge
Cecilia Bauzá handles public relations for the complex

Chef Samantha Leske has become a local celebrity - click to enlarge
Chef Samantha Leske has become a local celebrity

The level of luxury is so pervasive at the Park Tower that the financial trauma that beset Argentina at the end of 2001, just a few months after the World Trade Center bombing, seems like a bad dream. “The crisis seems to be fading into part of a sad history,” Cecilia said. “Things are picking up; there is a sense of hope.”

But, she added, although the economy seems on the way to recovery, there is still great need. The peso which had once been equal to the dollar was worth roughly 33 cents at the time or our visit, a bonanza for shopping Americans but indicative of the hardships that persist.

The Starwood organization, according to Cecilia, is deeply involved in programs to alleviate economic distress. “Since our program of Sweet Sleeper Beds was inaugurated, all the hotels’ beds have been changed. The old ones, all in excellent condition, have gone to institutions that care for people in need,” she told us. “We donate food, clothes, furniture, products that we don’t need but can be used. We contribute to the soup kitchens in the city. We’re very involved in a place that is kind of a refuge for children. They’ll call us sometimes and say ‘We need school kits,’ and we’ll be there. For Christmas we collect toys and bring them over. It is very funny because December in Buenos Aires can be very hot, and one of our men will be wearing this heavy Santa Claus outfit.”

It did seem a mark of distinction that an international hotel chain would participate in helping to alleviate problems in a specific locality. Perhaps this corporate policy plays some role in the sense of pride we witnessed among staff members, noticeably Cecilia, Samy, and Julian – a trio of competent, talented and very young people who have so swiftly risen to positions of leadership -- in being associated with the Starwood brand..

“My original language is Italian. Then of course I learned Spanish,” said Julian. “Since working here, I’ve learned to speak English, a little French.  I’ve met so many people who have shown me new ways of looking at things, new ways of thinking. This hotel changed my life.”

Sheraton Buenos Aires Hotel & Convention Center
San Martin 1225
Buenos Aires, Argentina

Phone: (54-11) 4318-9371

Park Tower
Avenida Leandro N. Alem 1193
Buenos Aires, Argentina

Phone: (54-11) 4318-9371

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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