Let’s get one thing straight. I am not a food snob, equally appreciative of pasteles on the side of the road in Puerto Rico (and strangely, as it turns out, Oahu), unidentifiable street meat from a cart in New York City, and bizarre fusion foods and haute cuisine from a world renowned culinary artist. In the wise words of American chef Paul Prudhomme, “You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food”. One of the benefits of endless business travel is the opportunity to sample a wide variety of regional cuisines, especially when, like me, you truly enjoy food. And I mean, I do enjoy food, almost as much as I enjoy a good cocktail. Almost. The primary problem with business travel is that is has an annoying habit of requiring some degree of cost efficiency, unless you are a millionaire corporate CEO with a private airplane, or jet-setting consultant who is flown in to think deep thoughts for a client. This is why god invented the “per diem”, or rather the fixed cost per day set for food expenses by angry accountants. For those of you who don’t travel for work, the per diem is an arcanely calculated number that says something along the lines of, “you can only spend $30 a day for food when travelling at the company’s expense, and unless you are in sales and courting a big account, you can’t spend it on alcohol”. Sometimes make me wish I got into sales. The per diem shrinks or enlarges based on who you work for, and consequently, if you work for a non-profit, the per diem is relatively smaller, since budgets are significantly more constrained.
This week, I’m doing a few presentations at a professional conference in Honolulu, Hawaii. Hey, don’t look at me like that. I didn’t choose the location. I’ve been here for a week, and those of you who travel know that even when you’re in paradise, a week away from home (particularly when it involves rubbing elbows professionally) can be especially taxing. I’m not a high maintenance girl by nature (although opinions vary depending on who you ask), and I love the cheap Hawaiian “mixed plates” of luau pork, spam, poi, rice, and assorted tasty bits of fish for a few bucks at a shack on the beach. I’m actually working and away from toddler son who I miss terribly, receiving bad news about grants that have to be written as soon as I return, and continuing to deal with the usual work crises from several thousand miles away. All work and no play makes psychologistmimi a dull girl, so I needed to schedule just the barest fraction of time for a little rest and relaxation, mostly in the interest of not strangling anybody. Plus, I’ve run out of business cards.
Hawaii is an expensive place. Pretty much everything that isn’t grown or caught locally has to be flown in, it being a bunch of islands and all. A roll of toilet paper can cost up to six dollars, for example. This makes monitoring costs a constant endeavor. It’s very easy to exceed a per diem in these circumstances, and unlike organizations that receive government bail-outs, if I exceed my per diem, I better start forking over my own cash, or there will be hell to pay. I don’t have a real problem with this, although I’m reasonably frugal as a rule. My colleague and I had kept costs negligible by hiking and hitting the beach on a daily basis, discovering fabulous and reasonably priced restaurant in out of the way corners of Oahu while doing community mapping for work. It’s been a long a week, nonetheless. Not like I was sipping Mai-Tais and bodysurfing the whole time. I was busy talking to psychologists about psychology, which takes an awful lot of discipline when there are so many better things to be doing in Hawaii. So last night, I rounded up my traveling companion and resolved to hit the down for a bit of R&R. Yelp directed us to a fancy treat of a lounge where women were required to wear heels, and men were directed to go home if they weren’t sporting closed-toe shoes. Reviews raved about the appetizers, and the cocktails were considered to be inspired. You had me at cocktails. As a devout girlie girl, the heels requirement was inconsequential, and simply offered another venue to show off another cool pair of shoes. We “suited up” and hit the town.
We walked over to the lounge of choice, cutting through the mobs of tourists crawling about or waiting in a one hour PF Chang’s line. I scoffed. Why would you wait in such a line for a national chain restaurant in Hawaii? I shook my head and kept on pointedly walking by. As we kept walking, we passed Denny’s (and I have to admit, I am no stranger to the glories of a greasy Denny’s breakfast). It was packed beyond belief with a red Viper parked out front. Interesting.
We arrived at our destination–a hotel/resort right on the beach that is a bit like the Delano Hotel in Miami Beach. You know. A bit of a whiff of decadence and pretentiousness. We walked about the mile-long hotel lobby, looking lost I am sure. We asked for directions, but due to sensory over-stimulation those didn’t sink in. We came across a set of restaurants. I look across the courtyard and see a younger crowd above the lower level restaurant facing the luau-type singers. Nothing made sense and there were no signs, but there were different types of seating arrangements hinting that there are some stealthily hidden lounges about. A kind staff person took pity on us and escorted us to the particular lounge we sought. It was dark, as a lounge should be. It was compact and filled with hardwood pod seating. Four seventy-year old couples were strewn about the pods. They looked up at us as we walk in. My female colleague and I look about, take a step in and take a step out. And that’s what the hokey pokey is all about. We walked back to the courtyard and found a restaurant that had a reasonably interesting menu. Yum. They have strawberry basil martinis. The place can’t be bad, right? But it does look a bit stodgy and not too interesting. But who needs interesting when you have basil martinis? Apparently we do. We ask for another lounge and are directed upstairs.
Ah, our heels do not click as we head up as the stairs are cushioned comfortably. My feet want to take a nap there. We wait for the hostess who upon arrival asks for my name, where I am from (am I local), my hotel and my social security and maiden name. I jest on the latter two. But it sure seemed like an interrogation. Well, after all that we were in luck. She could seat us. We inquired about sitting near the window. See, the catch about this restaurant: it was located above and overlooked the ocean. It was stunning. There was no table at the window but she could get us real close.
Indeed, our original table got us supremely close to the beautiful view. The hostess then noted the table in front of us was about to finish and at such time we could move to that table. Score! We giggle as we are seated next to each other in a cozy nook. We look about, noting that there are many couples apparently celebrating anniversaries or birthdays.
Our waiter stops by to bring us the cocktail and wine menus. Hmm. Every cocktail is mixed with champagne. Not thrilled about it. The cocktails are $20. Wow. That is more expensive than New York. How is that possible? I order a strawberry concoction. They come back with our cocktails and they are beautiful and yummy, despite the champagne. The menus are laid before us. First off, I see two pages before me where almost every item would cause me to go into anaphylactic shock from my shellfish allergy. Secondly, there are no prices anywhere. Instead of listed prices is some form of Cyrillic writing: Фита. Where is this strange land we find ourselves in? The maître d’ stops by as they are wont to do. We ask for a menu explanation. After a while we don’t listen too carefully as he excitedly notes $300 for a full tasting menu.
Here is the thing. We were not hungry when we went out. All we had wanted was a few tasty appetizers to buffer the cocktails. I am not averse to a really good expensive meal. I am that point in my life where I can do so if I wish. But I just wasn’t hungry and it was not going to be covered by our company. Which wouldn’t be a problem if I were hungry. But I was not. Hmm. I look for the nearest exit. As someone who is afraid of flying and who loves the movie Scarface I always note the nearest exit in a new location. The maître d’ returns. We threw every strategy we could come up with at him. I told him about my extreme shellfish allergy and even showed him my “epi “pen. He wasn’t flustered. He directed me to the mushroom-sauced gnocchi as an appetizer. He steered me to the pork cheeks. Yum. Pork. My colleague asked him if we could just order appetizers. He seemed stymied for a second. Then noted that he was flexible if we wanted to just order an appetizer and an entrée that would be fine. He did go on to note that the appetizer would be $50. I had visions of a single fig being placed on a round plate and garnished with some sort of rare leaf. Meanwhile we joked about training the waiters on how to use my epi pen. The waiter agree to be my colleague’s backup should I need to be stabbed with epinephrine in my outer thigh. Hell, I needed another $20 cocktail. We looked about and said “to hell with it”. It is time to enjoy the meal. What other choice did we have? The maître d’ was not letting us go. We ordered our four course meal and rolled with it.
First off, came mushrooms in panna cotta. I took one bite and needed a swig of my cocktail. I really don’t like cold slimy food for dinner. I had a moment of panic that this would not bode well for the rest of the initially unwanted meal. But they did come to move us to a table right in front of the water. Beautifully played by the management. Now we are lulled into the sounds of the ocean water and have forgotten the pending price. Then came my cheese and Carpaccio. Excellent. Then came the pork cheeks. Absolutely tender and delicious. Then came my next cocktail. Obviously, with each additional cocktail, one’s regard for the universe improves. The view was gorgeous. The food was delicious. Then came my vanilla soufflé. It was heavenly. The side rum and caramel sauce was the icing on the soufflé. We were giddy. The food was great and the cocktails surely warmed the tummy. We laid down the credit cards and signed it away. We stumbled out. A belly full of pork cheeks and vanilla bits and a wallet a little bit lighter. And I have to admit, that was the best soufflé ever and not just because the meal was $300. But I am sure the price did impact my perception as well as the cocktails. Keep em coming.