Saved by the Dragon lady at the Sheraton Plaza, Jerusalem
This past weekend found us at the Sheraton Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem. As the weekend comes to a close, the phrase that keeps screaming in my head is — how far the mighty have fallen. Ask people in the know about the Sheraton, and they will always start with Chef Shalom Kodesh and his staff of talented practitioners. The story of his rise to fame was metered, but still quite impressive. To push this selling point, his story and dreams are plastered all over the Sheraton hotel brochures. One can only guess, that their hope is to ensure that their jet lagged customers are sure to read about their prized chef. The brochures talk to his desire to stay hands on, and his interest in driving a stake into the heart of the myth, that kosher food cannot also be a culinary treat. He seemed to have been successful at both of these for some time, but after this last weekend, we are left wondering if Kodesh has locked himself into his office or fallen asleep at the wheel.
Friday night my friend and I found ourselves staring at a menu with three options for appetizer and for the entree as well. We thought to ourselves, bummer we will only get to taste two of the three entrees and appetizers. Unfortunately, we quickly realized we were totally overreaching. Appetizers started with salmon, gefilte fish, and roasted vegetable medley. We both chose the salmon option and in hindsight that was the worst option available. The salmon arrived covered in an acidic and acrid tasting tomato sauce. Even after clearing away the sauce (which in and of itself proved complicated) it did not help to improve the flavor. It was really a shame, because the salmon itself was cooked almost perfectly. The flesh was flaky with a slight hint of pink in the center. We did try the other two appetizers at the buffet on Saturday and the gefilte fish was really nice with a slight firmness that gave way to the fork. The flavor was all white fish and seasoned just right. Unfortunately, the vegetable medley was a disaster. It was almost a microcosm of all the dishes served this past weekend. Barely seasoned, plain, without imagination, and drowned in oil. The vegetables were barely roasted, with just a few char marks on some yellow roasted peppers that graced the serving platter, along with eggplants, and some other unrecognizable vegetable. Sadly, there was no imagination or execution, to say the least.
If the appetizers were a pale excuse for a four star hotel, than the entrees were an abomination. I chose the roasted duck (in a belated homage to Thanksgiving), while my friend chose the roulade and Cornish hen. The last option was roast chicken with four spices. Before our entrees appeared, I ordered a bottle of Galil Cabernet 2006. I do not have tasting notes on this wine, but it was a nice wine with strong notes of cassis, raspberry, and spice. My duck arrived shortly and I could tell immediately that this was not going to be my night. The duck seemed to be impersonating a chunk of fibrous shoe leather. The duck was overcooked, while miraculously maintaining a flabby skin, nowhere near a crispy skin. This was a clear case of a poorly managed dinner service, and worse, a duck reheating gone very bad. The roulade was actually edible with a mushroom and squash filling. However, the Cornish hen did not luck into the same treatment. Instead it looked like a smaller version of the bird that I had on my plate. The hen was overcooked and again lacked any flavor. The evening was such a disaster that when the waiter came by to ply us with desert, we just left, which as you will see soon, was yet another mistake to tack onto the evening.
Sleeping on a virtually empty stomach was fine as we looked forward to the legendary Saturday Brunch. However, we are jumping ahead of ourselves. The morning started with a classical Israeli buffet of fresh vegetables, cheese, and small pastries called rougala. The vegetables were nothing special, but the vegetable salads and cheese were enjoyable.
After we went for a walk and a quick siesta, we entered the ballroom with high anticipations of the feast that awaited us. I started with the fish and vegetable medley that I passed on the previous evening. After the partial success, I went to the hot tables to take in some cholent, and roast beef. Well, that is where I realized that there was something wrong in the hotel. The cholent looked like someone took some canned beans, canned potatoes, and overcooked and tasteless chuck meat and threw them into a pot to serve everyone. To add insult to injury, the roast was equally as poor as the cholent meat, really a sad showing for such an acclaimed culinary establishment. The other options were turkey (which was overcooked and tasteless), and a kugel that we passed on from sight alone.
So there we were seated on the side wall, taking in the entire spectacle that is a buffet run, even one as poor as this one. There are people who come to the buffet to see their friends and family. Then there are the folks who come to be seen. But within the din of humanity, there seemed to be a pattern that was repeating. Every so often a male chef dressed in white, would appear and switch some serving dish from the buffet table, with a fresh pan. Their testosterone filled stance and pace could not overcome their infrequent appearance, and so they just got lost within the buffet scene humanity. However, out of nowhere something clicked, there was a pattern that repeated far more often and screamed for attention. After closer analysis, we saw that there was a woman with a chef’s frock that carried food, and an impressive head chef tude. She turned out to be the pastry chef. With the entrees being a total flop, I figured I would try out some desert. Now I am not a huge cake or cookie guy, but with nothing else going well, I gave it a shot.
I approached the pastry chef, and ask her what she would recommend. She pointed to a platter of what seemed like strawberry infused gelatin with strawberry and raspberry sauce artfully placed on the plate. With slight trepidation, I took a slice of the recommended desert, and I took a brownie to cover my bases. I turned to thank her for her advice, and I was rewarded with a scathing and contempt filled reaction; “If that is what you were going to take, why did you bother to ask me for my advice”. Upon returning to the table and detailing the incident to my friend, he aptly named her the Dragon lady. As we continued to watch the proceedings, we noticed that if her contempt was overshadowed by anything, it would be her fastidiousness. She constantly could be seen hovering and fussing over her creations. As the buffet crowd chopped and mangled her beloved pastries with countless cutting implements, she could be seen clearing away broken and mutilated pastry parts. As more and more of the smorgasbord minions cut away at her divinations, she could be seen trailing the destructive forces, making the unsightly beautiful again.
It was a doubly impressive tour de force. First the cakes were quite enjoyable. There was no heavy creamed, over caramelized and over sugared creations. Instead, where the entrees and appetizers were mostly listless, over dramatized, and under seasoned, these pastries were balanced and heady delicacies. They touched on imagination and pulled on heart strings, while keeping you grounded in dessert land. Finally, there was a table with food worthy of the acclaim; sadly it was not from the acclaimed chef. Who knows, maybe Kodesh saw something in this self confident and capable pastry chef, to unleash her into the testosterone filled battleground and to allow her to make a mark on this otherwise dismal weekend. Long live the dragon lady, and with hope that is the winged creation, to turn the hotel from an ugly duckling into a lovely phoenix. So the next time you visit the hotel for dinner, keep your eyes out for the self confident female chef, as she may be last bastion of hope in this once stronghold of culinary accomplishment.