Saturday, May 2, 2009

Arlington Hotel: Venetian Dining Room, Hot Springs

Before I begin the restaurant review, here’s an overview of the place. We stayed at the Arlington Hotel on Saturday, April 25. It’s a large historic hotel built in 1924 on the site of two previous Arlington Hotels. It’s part of Hot Springs National Park; you can walk out your door and stroll down the historic “bathhouse row” or walk right into the wooded trails of Hot Springs Mountain.

The hotel is fun to stay at—the rooms are indeed small compared to most modern hotels, but the hotel is nice, well-maintained, and has all the modern amenities. Our biggest problem was with the door lock: The key, if you jiggled it just right, would eventually turn the deadbolt to and fro, but the door wouldn’t open anyway. The doorknob latch remained closed, and the doorknob wouldn’t turn. It about drove me crazy. We always managed to get into the room by pushing rapidly back and forth on the non-turning knob, but we never figured out how we managed to get it open. Very frustrating. They need to get new locks.

And at night we could hear the bed creaking rhythmically from the next room. The rooms are not very soundproofed. Oh well. It's an old building; what can they do about it? Not much.

We had dinner at the Venetian Dining Room, also known as “Window on the Park.” It’s on the hotel’s lobby level, has big high ceilings and large windows showing the park. Because the front desk people had said it was possible to eat outside at tables on the large veranda, we asked the maitre d’ if we could be seated outside, but he told us there was no service out there, although we could possibly get food to go and then not expect any waitstaff. (Hmm.)

So okay, we ate inside the dining room. The decor was elegant. The pianist was good, and her selections from the Great American Songbook added greatly to our enjoyment. There were plenty of waiters around, and I was glad that we’d be well cared for during our meal. (Note the foreshadowing.)

And the meal was wonderful. I had the braised baby back ribs with polenta and tobacco onions. I have to admit that the last was what made me order the plate—I’ve heard about a “new” trend among chefs to use tobacco as a seasoning ingredient for sauces, and I was thrilled to have a chance to try it. And yes, it was delicious; it didn’t taste like an ashtray at all. {{Note: Read the comments below! --JS 8/25/09}} And the cooked onions paired wonderfully with the rich flavor of the ribs. And the meat was tender and perfect. The polenta, of course, was just the right backdrop for all the savory, salty, smoky richness.

Sue and my dad both got the crab cakes and were very happy with it. The slaw it came with was really fresh, light, tasty, not heavily sauced.

The bread pudding we had for dessert was “kicked up” with cranberries and nuts (I think I remember they were pecans) and possibly some other goodies. I can’t remember, and I didn’t take notes. But yes, it was delicious, too.

So the ambience was excellent. The food was more than excellent.

But here’s the part where I complain bitterly: My water glass was never refilled. Nooo, I didn’t order another beverage. I really just wanted water. I can’t have alcohol, and I didn’t want to mess up my palate for the exquisite flavors I anticipated.

Sue and my dad both ordered glasses of wine, each of which was delivered to the table in a tiny, single-serving carafe that many people would be happy to use as a flower vase. The waiter poured the wine into the glass for them, and another waiter, later on, visited the table just to refill their wine glasses from the carafes—something Sue and Dad could have done perfectly easily themselves. But the waiters were trying to be impressive, I guess.

Meanwhile, I sucked on my ice cubes and rattled my glass as the waiters drifted past: Hint, hint.

I suppose I could have asked for more water, but then again, it’s the point of the thing.

I’ve been to all kinds of restaurants, some little more than greasy spoons, and dang it, they are usually happy to refill my water glass until I’m about to float away. And we were right next to the beverage station; the waiters’ water pitcher was in my sightline, just over my mom’s shoulder. (Agua . . . agua . . .)

So I was already a little ticked off at this small, but important detail, and then the waiter presented the bill to my dad, and it had two orders of . . . macaroni listed on it. Huh? My mom had gotten a salad. So my dad patiently waited for the waiter to return, explained the problem, and the waiter, who didn’t seem surprised that two orders of macaroni were on our bill, did at least agree to fix the bill. He asked if he could take my dad’s card then, or did my dad want to see the revised bill first. My dad chose the latter (well, yeah!), and I sensed that the waiter felt this was being too persnickety. But he eventually returned with a new bill, my dad inspected and paid it, and our evening went along nicely from there.

I don’t know what my dad tipped those guys, but I hope it wasn’t the full amount. In this kind of place, with these kinds of prices, you should receive at least the kind of attention you’d get at a greasy diner, where they get your bill right because they paid attention to what you ordered, or else quickly fix the error, snooty attitude be damned.

So yes, I can recommend the restaurant for the ambiance and the food. But check your bill carefully, and bring along a canteen of water.

And yes, this town is famous for its water.

(Oh, the irony.)

Arlington Hotel: Venetian Dining Room on Urbanspoon


Reets said...

I agree about waiter service. No point having wonderful food if the staff make you feel awkward. My friend and I had a BBQ today and I marinated my chicken in honey, mustard, ginger and pinapple sage and it was to die for!!!!! Just the thing for sitting in the sun over a bank holiday weekend!

Julie said...

Well, I didn't feel awkward--just invisible, which made me angry. . . . And BBQ! You had BBQ way over there Across the Pond! That's pretty cool. Contact me and I'll send you some sauce from my favorite BBQ joint.

JaneL said...

Not having my water glass filled is a huge peeve with me too. I always wonder if there's a belief that people will eventually break down and order a drink they have to pay for--it's never worked with me; I just get irritated, like you did.

Julie said...

For me, the water refilling was just a symbol(symptom) of a greater problem with the waitstaff at that restaurant. They were working as a team, yet they managed to make me feel overlooked. I don't expect genuine warmth from waiters at classy high-style places, but I do expect attentiveness and observation. "How are you doing? Can I bring you more water?"

I had initially asked if they had local spring water available, and the waiter had said (rather flatly) "no." (And he made no offer of sparkling water or even club soda, which I would probably have gotten.) I said I'd have a regular glass of water then.

I don't think it was a conspiracy to make me buy a sugary Coke or fall off the wagon; I think they simply weren't trained or managed well.

Anonymous said...

I work at the hotel you mentioned, cook there actually. The tobacco onions are called that due to their appearance. They are sliced thin and brown from frying, much like the cut tobacco you find everywhere. There is no actual tobacco used in the preperation of the onions. They are just thinly sliced onions soaked in buttermilk and coated with flour and spices before being deep fried.

Julie said...

Oh, well that's very interesting! I had been hearing about chefs experimenting with tobacco and tobacco sauce as an ingredient, and that's what I thought you were doing.

See this for "tobacco wrapped grilled snapper": Here's an article about the phenonemon from beverages ("nicotini") to tobacco with cream in gnocci, or in a wine sauce with filet mignon, or with cream in a panna cotta dessert:

But I also see that "tobacco onions" are pretty much a traditional southern dish. One that I'd just never heard of!

I should have done more homework! I really appreciate you straightening me out on this.

And yes, the food was absolutely delicious!

Mwah, mwah, mwah! <--(kisses)