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Four Seasons Hotel, Washington, DC:  A Hotel for All Seasons

'Twas the week before Christmas, and the Four Seasons of Washington, DC was aglow with the lights of Christmas trees. There seemed a dozen of them, maybe more. Who counted? People walked down the hotel lobby stopping at every one, transfixed. Each was unique, the vision of a local florist or designer. One was threaded with coppery balls, pine combs, and squares of silver and gold; another, hung with opalescent globes, was pure white like a little tree in a snowy forest. There was one studded with tiny lights and fuchsia bell-like ornaments, yet another was trimmed with silvery stars. But the crowd pleaser, it would seem, was wound through with tiny jewel-like ornaments. Clusters of stuffed animals lay at the base, and miniature electric trains circled the branches on a never-ending trip to never-never land.

It was altogether a story-book welcome to the famed Washington property. Yet these “hard-to-believe-it-isn’t-real” trees were more than holiday decorations. For each would shortly be transferred to the homes of the highest bidders at a silent auction that had been held a few weeks earlier at the Four Seasons, part of a 700-person DC gala to benefit Georgetown University's Children's Bone Marrow Research Center.

Christmas time at the Four Seasons Hotel, Washington, DC was magical. But then again, any season would be magical at this property. In a city renowned for historic sites, the hotel is already a landmark, immediately identifiable at the foot of the bridge where Pennsylvania Avenue runs into M Street, and the boulevard of inaugural parades and nation-defining structures gives way to an avenue of brick-paved sidewalks whose small shops, quiet restaurants, and used-book stores evoke an America of an earlier day. Only twelve blocks from the White House, the six-story, red-brick building of irregular shape and angled roof lines is anchored in its picturesque Georgetown setting. At the same time, it is a sentry on the doorstep of the nation's capitol.

The hotel slopes downward to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal commissioned by George Washington to facilitate shipping in the early days of the Republic. Rooms look out through huge windows to the Canal or Rock Creek Park. Or they face interior courtyards on either side of a glass-lined breezeway and atrium that link the East and West Wings of the hotel. In one of the courts, an arresting pair of Raymond Mason bas-reliefs embody the spirit of the locale. At ground level against an exterior wall, a group of folk look upwards; some are pointing to an opposite wall where amidst a swirl of clouds, figures, horses, and muskets, the images of George Washington and Pierre-Charles L’Enfant emerge, evoking the actual meeting of the pair in a Georgetown tavern over the course of several days in March 1791 when the first president of the United States and the French architect worked on designs for the site of the new nation's federal government.

Historic allusions notwithstanding, this Four Seasons -- which is nearing its 30th birthday -- seems sparkling new; it delivers all one would expect from the brand. Everything looks good. Everything works well. You walk through the wide, wood-paneled lobby that traverses the building from front to rear, the gleaming floors studded with striking carpets of contemporary but classic-looking design, the museum-quality paintings on the walls, the sculpture on display -- part of a substantial collection of largely mid-twentieth century American artists of such note as Mark Rothko, and the reaction is "Wow!" 

Rooms are spacious and bright, having gone through a renovation that decreased their number while increasing their size. There is the traditional West Wing with its pastel shades and fabrics of silk and brocades and the contemporary East Wing with streamlined furnishings in cool greens and mauves. All have plasma television sets, luxurious dual bathrooms of limestone and marble with toiletries by L’Occitaine, and the guarantee of a good night’s sleep courtesy of a custom-designed Sealy mattress. The three-story full-service spa, which envelops you in the aroma of eucalyptus from the moment of entrance, provides a range of massages, personal trainers, and the opportunity to reserve a lane in the lap pool and enjoy a private swim beneath a sky-lit roof.

With more than two employees for every guest (a ratio rare in American hotels), personal attention is a given. But beyond the number is the attitude. Every bellman, server, housekeeper, concierge, and receptionist encountered greets you warmly and is at the ready to be of help. "We look for the right kind of personality," Anshul Kaul, Director of Restaurants, told us, "the willingness to engage, the warmth, the charisma."

A few who make things work at the Four Seasons (clockwise from top left): Anshul Kaul, Director of Restaurants;  Jennifer Okun,
Assistant Spa Manager; Michael Katigbak, Corporate Sales Manager; Hemant Chauhan, Assistant F&B Manager 

Restaurants are a major part of the Four Seasons DC experience. There is the  huge, open living room of the Garden Terrace where in comfortable sofas and deep upholstered chairs, light meals are available any time of the day and an Afternoon Tea elaborate enough to meet the standards of British royalty is staged each afternoon.

A broad curving stairway beside the Garden Terrace sweeps down to the lower level and the hotel's gastronomic dining room, Seasons, whose southern feel is enhanced by graceful potted palms. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out to an expansive patio on the banks of the C & O Canal which is open for al fresco dining during Washington's long mild seasons.

Dinner at Seasons is an elegant affair impeccably served on white and gold dishes. The cuisine combines standard American fare like prime rib steak with more exotic fare like a circle of tuna tartar on a plate set into a larger bowl filled with small dark stones, topped with red caviar, fried shallots, and what looked like black pepper but is actually a type of onion seed frequently used in Indian cooking in an emulsion of  tapioca texture made of lime and Mandarin.

Tender and flavorful Muscovy duck breast, sliced in triangles, lay atop a bed of risotto. It came with a flower-shaped puff pastry lined with fennel and endive. Hemant Chauhan, who is Assistant Food and Beverage Manager and also a sommelier, suggested a glass of Burgundy Baume to go with the duck which "has a bit of tanginess but not too much, while the Pinot Noir has a bit of tanginess and just the right amount of tannins to pick up the flavor of the duck," he said. "It's strong, gives a little jolt."

Season's expansive wine list offers a wide selection of wines available by the glass or half bottle allowing one to experiment a bit, have the opportunity to enjoy several different wines during the course of a meal which we did, sampling a full-bodied Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon recommended by Hemant as well.

Both Hemant and Anshul are from India. Our server at Seasons was from Morocco, and during the course of our stay, we met Four Seasons employees from the Philippines, Eritrea, Ethiopia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Spain, and Italy. One of the hotel's three chefs is -- predictably enough -- French, but the one we got to talk to is a fellow from Philadelphia and a long-suffering Phillies fan. Mike Abt is young, informal, and enthusiastic about his profession which he committed to at the age of 14 when he decided he liked cooking and apprenticed himself to a chef.      His credo is “to make things that are a little bit different that are fun for my cooks and for the guests.

"One of the things we are doing is experimenting in making pearls that look like caviar," he told us. "We make carrot or celery juice  and add sodium and some other chemicals that turn the liquid into little drops. They solidify and look very much like caviar. There's a little skin on the outside. You put it in your mouth, rub it against the roof of your tongue, and it pops -- a burst of flavor. Last summer we did it with tomato gazpacho. It had all the flavor of gazpacho -- the garlic, the spices, the tomato-like taste."

He continued, "We like to mix the traditional with the contemporary, do things guests can relate to but in an innovative way like serving lentil soup with poached egg.  And we always have vegetarian and even vegan dishes. Today there is butter squash puree with rice, and lasagna with mushrooms, tomatoes, eggplant, and spices which we layer with a French pastry dough.

The fellow from Philadelphia: Chef Mike Abt
The fellow from Philadelphia: Chef Mike Abt

"Also there's a new direction in the dining operation aimed at reducing our global footsteps. We want to rely on local products, get our produce and eggs from farmers in the Potomac Valley and West Virginia, our fish from the Chesapeake Bay waters.

"We keep changing. We are heading in the direction of organic foods wherever possible. Internally we are very conscious of focusing on the 'Green Initiative.'"

The "Green Initiative," we came to see, is a subtle commitment at this Four Seasons. It appears in many efforts, from the little rubber frog in every room which guests can use to indicate sheets need not be changed (a playful nudge to "do the right thing" -- but only if you're so inclined) to an extensive policy of recycling and composting.

"We are trying to participate in as many environmentally-sound practices as possible," Michael Katigbak, the Philippine-born corporate sales manager, told us. "We are serious about recycling, diligent in separating food waste from other materials. It’s a practice that had paid dividends quite quickly. Recently we planted a cherry tree out front. The soil and compost came from the company who takes away our food waste and composts it.” He smiled with satisfaction: “Our recycling efforts had come full circle."

"George Washington would be proud," we said to Michael.

"He would,” he replied, adding, “We are trying to be as environmentally responsible as possible. But at the same time, we maintain the standards of a luxury property."

Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC
2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20007

Phone:  202-342-0444
Web:  http://www.fourseasons.com/washington

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
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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