"What on earth are you getting all dressed up for?" my wife said to me. I had just emerged from the bedroom, having shed my jeans and golf shirt in favor of suit pants and a button-down Oxford.
"I need to look the part," I told her.
The Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau runs a "Be a Tourist in Your Own Town" program, which offers local residents discounts on admission to area museums and plantations during the slow month of January. I had determined to pilot a "Be a Businessman in Your Own Town" program, to try to get a glimpse of Charleston through the eyes of a visiting business traveler.
The whole thing had its roots in a wine tasting I attended at the spanking new Holiday Inn on Meeting Street, which opened back in November. The hotel's restaurant, I noted as I wandered around before the event, had a tapas format, and I recognized the name of the chef, too: Ramon Taimanglo, who was executive chef at High Cotton and did stints at respected restaurants in Charlotte and Washington, D.C. before that.
"This is not your typical hotel restaurant," I thought as I scanned the menu.
I've got more experience than I would like with hotel restaurants and with being a business traveler in other peoples' towns, having carried a bag for the better part of 20 years. Business-oriented hotels come in two tiers. In the first are the no-frills brands that offer free breakfast in the lobby — a reliable but bland buffet of yogurt, pastries, and sad egg-and-meat concoctions reheated in a microwave.
Then there's the upper tier, which offers a full-service restaurant complete with poly-blend napkins and the trendy mantra of "fresh, seasonal, locally-inspired fare." In practice, this upper tier is far more depressing than the lower. The bare-bones hotel isn't putting on airs. It offers sustenance in the barest sense of the word, utilitarian food to fill your belly and get you through that all-morning meeting you're already running late for.
At the top-tier joints it's a different matter. Breakfasts are unconscionably expensive — $18 for a plate of eggs, bacon, and toast no better than a corner diner's, a form of highway robbery made possible only by a world of expense accounts and weak financial oversight.
Dinner is worse, for it puts on all the trappings of fine dining but in the safest and blandest way possible. I know all too well that sinking feeling of walking into a restaurant and thinking, with that eternal hope that drives us from one city to the next, convinced the next big deal is right around the corner and not more rejection and delay, that maybe this meal won't be so bad. And then you pick up the bifold faux-leather menu and read from the cardstock inside the same tepid roster of dishes you were offered the week before in Lincoln, Nebraska — or, wait, maybe that was Tampa?
Seared tuna, grilled salmon, penne pasta with pesto, a steak or two. An endless litany of sameness, of meals eaten in lobby bars with towering ceilings or clubby wood-walled restaurants with freshly polished brass and discrete flower arrangements. A culinary purgatory for those just passing through, biding their time while waiting for the rest of their lives to begin on Friday afternoon.
Which brings us back to the Meeting Room. Its menu looked intriguing, but I went in skeptical, having been burned by one promising-sounding hotel restaurant after another over the years. But I came out being quite impressed by the food.
Playing off the "Meeting Room" name, the menu is organized into "The First Impression" (soups & salads), "The Acquaintance" (small tapas-style plates), and "The Meeting" (entrees).
The agenda for "The Meeting" lists five entrees, including fried chicken and waffles ($17), a Lowcountry boil that includes scallops and clams ($18), and bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin served with spaetzle and sweet and sour turnips ($18). They're tempting, but it's hard to commit to any one large plate when the tapas menu offers such a refreshing variety of choices.
Business traveler menus are typically composed of whatever was hot and edgy about eight years ago but has since become safe. A few of the "Acquaintance" selections fall into this category, like mussels in green curry broth ($8) and beef tartare with truffle oil and arugula ($8). But most reflect an up-to-date culinary sensibility, and they are well-executed, too.
Two sea scallops ($10) are served perched on mounds of swiss chard dotted with tiny red beets. Perfectly seared and buttery inside, the scallops alone would be a winner. They're made even better by the rest of the plate — the sweet beets roasted so their thin tails are slightly but pleasantly charred, the tender, salty greens enlivened by pops of citrus from a red grapefruit vinaigrette.
I've become wary of pork belly over the past few years, since any number of dreadful farm-to-strip-mall bistros have proven how easy it is to screw up. Taimanglo's version ($9) doesn't fall into this camp. It's a modest sized-cube, streaked with fat but with plenty of lean, too, clean and not too oily. In the accompanying succotash, baby limas are blended not with the usual corn but with firm, meaty field peas, and the whole is made richer by a splash of pale-yellow corn cream.
For that not-so-adventurous traveler, the bar menu offers the sort of tried-and-true fare preferred by project managers and enterprise account executives from Boston to San Diego: chicken wings, a cheeseburger, fish and chips. But even with these there are twists. The wings ($6) are glazed in soy sauce and served with kimchi, the burger ($10) is topped with pimento cheese and pickled jalapenos, and the fish ($11) is tempura-battered striped bass and the chips cut by hand.
To my business traveler's palate, the most satisfying thing on the menu is the fettucine ($7). The fresh, pale-yellow noodles are tender and smooth, tossed in a pepper-laced cream and dotted with chunks of housemade bacon and bright green English peas. A farm egg is served sunny-side up over the top, perhaps a shade too done, but fortunately with enough liquid yolk left to ooze down into the pasta and merge with the cream sauce. The sparks of black pepper add a nice accent to what is a warm, creamy, and very filling small plate.
A dish like this is just what you need when you're alone, dog tired, and ready for bed after a long working day. Some nights on the road, you're feeling adventurous and ready to jump in a cab and track down a meal to remember. Other nights you just want to have a beer and a bite, relax for an hour, and then roll upstairs to bed. But even on nights like that, there's no reason that we modern day Willy Lomans shouldn't be able to enjoy our meals. At the Meeting Room they can, and I hope the hotels in Baltimore and Minneapolis will take notice.
Looking at the Meeting Room as a resident, the picture is a slightly murkier. The environment is a bit harsh and relentlessly modern for my taste. Part of that may be due to the gleaming newness of the building, but the room has that clean, spare, no-there-there feel of, well, a corporate hotel restaurant. With Upper King Street and its parade of new, highly-acclaimed restaurants just two blocks away, the overall dining experience might prove a hard sell for the locals. But, if they give it a chance, I predict they'll be satisfied with the food.
I like the notion though that Charleston, being such a strong culinary town, should be the kind of place where even the three- and four-star hotels serve food that wows you. The Meeting Room, thankfully, is not dripping in Lowcountry cliché — no she-crab soup or shrimp and grits — but with fresh, local veggies and housemade duck pastrami, it has the right sensibility to fit into the current scene.