Thursday, April 22, 2010
A few years ago, I stayed at a luxury hotel in Times Square for several weeks (paid for by my employer, of course). At some point early in my stay, I noticed with amusement that the room service menu offered a $30 grilled cheese sandwich. After I'd had really positive experiences with a couple of the menu's fancier items, which were only slightly more expensive, I started to wonder whether maybe, just maybe, there would be something magical about this sandwich, some rare mystery ingredient that transformed it into an unforgettable culinary experience. I speculated that years later, I'd rave about "the best grilled cheese sandwich I've ever had," describing in detail my surprise at discovering how perfectly brie, truffle oil and gold dust complemented each other. For my final night at the hotel, I invited my friend Anna over and we ordered the sandwich and made an event out of it. As you may have guessed, it was an absolute disappointment; in fact, I can't recall what type of bread or cheese it included, but I think it was plain cheddar and I'm pretty sure it was served with French fries and ketchup. Meh. (Side note: a couple of months ago I hosted a grilled cheese party and everything we made was better than that hotel sandwich, but the ones with honey and the one with mozzarella and apricot jam were the real knock-outs.)
Oh, dear, will I ever learn? Nope. A month ago, I found myself in another luxury hotel in the same situation, only this time it was the Korean equivalent of a grilled cheese sandwich: bibimbap. For the uninitiated, bibimbap is a classic Korean dish that includes a chaotic medley of rice and vegetables, a heavy dose of pepper paste, and sometimes meat or egg. This was the first Korean meal I ever had, and I've eaten it about two hundred times since then with minimal differences in quality, although there are lots of slightly different varieties. I like mine dolsot style, with crisped up rice and warm egg yolk coating its contents. This meal sets me back about four dollars at my favorite neighborhood restaurant, so I assured myself that there definitely had to be something extra special about the hotel's thirty dollar version.
Meh. More beautiful, certainly, but that's where the differences end. It could be said that anyone who orders something like a grilled cheese sandwich or bibimbap at a hotel wants to seek comfort in the plain, nostalgia-inducing version of the meal they've been accustomed to since childhood, which would be a fair point if it didn't cost almost as much as the Chilean sea bass. On the other hand, Zemkimchi had an interesting post today about angry Koreans demanding higher prices as a mark of status, so perhaps in this case the cost is actually a courtesy to guests who want to eat the same meal as their poorer compatriots but pay seven times as much for it.
I'd like to say I finally learned my lesson, but no doubt in the future you can expect disappointed accounts of my experimentation with the thirty dollar room service tacos in Mexico City and the thirty dollar pierogi in Warsaw.