Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Aqua Restaurant at Crowne Plaza Kitchener-Waterloo

In late July, I travelled to an unusual destination: Kitchener, ON.  Yes, to a random town in Canada.  Why?  I had a friend getting married in Buffalo, NY (2 hours away), and I figured it was a good excuse to check out our Waterloo office for a few days, rather than just visiting the east coast for a day or two.

I planned to stay at the Sheraton, because I'm a loyal Starwood gal, but a co-worker said I should stay closer to the office.  I obliged, after doing a little bit of due diligence research on my options.  The Crowne Plaza was clearly the top choice.  While there were some noise complaints, it was recently renovated, and, you know me with my one track focus, people actually really raved about the breakfast buffet.  The Sheraton had good reviews for the hotel itself, but, alas, no one had anything positive to say about their mostly-continental breakfast offerings.

Thus, the Crowne Plaza it was, with a rate that included breakfast, of course.  And, failing that, my office was just down the street, and they serve breakfast.  I really enjoyed my breakfast the first day, but subsequent days were lackluster.  I do wish I'd checked out the offerings at our office instead.  Next time?
Bar, Seating.
Like the rest of the hotel, the restaurant recently had a major renovation.  The space was modern, swanky, beautiful.

Breakfast is a buffet, normally $14 for the hot buffet or $9 for just a continental.  There is an a la carte menu as well, but only the buffet was included in my rate.  Drinks are not self-serve, rather, you order from the waitress as you enter.

Service was actually really good ... the first day.  The single server was friendly and, as I watched her work, I was crazy impressed.  Every guest who walked in after me had clearly been there before, and, she knew each drink order by heart as they walked in, no matter how standard ("orange juice and coffee?") or a bit odd ("unsweet iced tea and warmed milk?")

The next morning was a stark contrast.  It was impossible to get any attention.  Myself, and many other guests, resorted to walking up to the front with our empty glasses to get refills of juice/coffee/water/etc.  New patrons entered and just sat, waiting for minutes before someone finally acknowledged them.  Granted, it was busy, and there were only two servers, but when I commented about how busy it was, the server said it was normal.  If this is normal mode of operation, you think they'd be better able to handle it?

The final morning was back to calm.  I walked in, was greeted, and offered coffee.  They came to check on me several times throughout my stay.  What a difference a day makes.
Table Setting, Coffee.
All days I ordered decaf coffee.

The water is tap water, and I can't say I liked the taste of it.  The second morning I knew better, and brought along a bottle of water.  Other included drink options are basic juices.  Ojan opted for the grapefruit juice, but said it wasn't very good.

The coffee was fine, although not great.  The first day, the awesome waitress poured me a cup while I was up getting my food selections, but also left an entire carafe on the table for me.  I loved that I didn't need to ask for refills or go without coffee.  Major bonus points.  She also left a pitcher of creamer.

The next morning however ... total opposite.  I was given just a single cup of coffee.  I could not, no matter what I did, get attention to get more.  I waved, I said, loudly, "excuse me?" as the server passed by.  Nothing.  The only effective route to more coffee was marching up to the front, placing myself in the server's path, and pointing at my empty cup.  Le sigh.  No creamer was provided, but, I didn't actually use it, so I didn't mind.

The final day, I ordered decaf, as usual, and the server even offered to go brew me a fresh pot, warning that it would take 4 minutes.  And then he instructed the other server to just bring me a whole carafe, which I gladly consumed in its entirely.  Such inconsistencies!

Assorted sweeteners, Dickenson's jams (strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, orange marmalade), and salt and pepper completed the place setting, along with cloth napkins.  I never care for Dickenson's jams, no matter how fancy they look, and how many times I try them.
Hot Buffet.
I started at the hot buffet.  Only one side of the buffet was filled, I imagine the other side is used only on weekends or when crazy busy?

The hot selection always featured "Roasted Breakfast Sausage" and "Maple Smoked Bacon", 2 daily egg dishes, 1 breakfast carb special, homefries, and grilled vegetables or baked beans.

The sausage and bacon did not look good at all, so I never tried them.  Ojan had bacon one day, and said it was fine.  I never like grilled veggies at breakfast, so I skipped those.  I did try baked beans on the one day they were offered and they were not very good.  Tasted like they came from a can, no real flavor in the sauce.  I mixed in ketchup and syrup to try to make them taste like ... something.

The potatoes weren't bad the first day.  Little cubes, seasoned, some crispy.  Clearly cooked with plenty of oil, but not in a gross way.  I tried them again on the third day, and that time they were soggy, tasted like stale oil, and were just not good at all.

Noticing a theme here?  The service, the product offered, the food quality ... inconsistent!
Scrambled Eggs w/ Tex Mex Cheese & Tomatoes, Cheese Omelet, Pancakes.
The final hot station was the most exciting, as it offered up two different egg dishes and a daily carby breakfast special.

On all days, one egg creation was Scrambled Eggs with Tex-Mex Cheese & Tomatoes.  I never really like eggs, and these didn't look great, so I moved right on.  The first and third days the second egg option was a frittata, which is perhaps one of my least favorite egg preps, so I obviously skipped that.

On the second day, the frittata was replaced with a cheesy omelet.  I decided to make an egg and cheese sando with a croissant, so I grabbed a chunk.  It was better than I expected, lots of nice melty cheese inside, and decently fluffy eggs for something sitting in a buffet.

It was of course the main breakfast carb specials that I really was excited to try.  On the first day, waffles!  On the subsequent days, pancakes!  Of course, these were sitting in a hot tray, on a buffet for who knows how long, so how good would they be?  But I love my breakfast carbs.

The first day, I eagerly dug into a waffle.  It looked crispy, and was covered in powdered sugar, plus there was a big pitcher of maple syrup on the side.  Anything can be made better with maple syrup, right?

Wrong.  The waffles were ... awful.  Rock solid.  Cold.  Really not good.  No amount of syrup, nor powdered sugar, could save these.

The next day, I tried again, with the pancakes.  They were just as bad.  Flimsy, flavorless.  I added more and more syrup, but the syrup itself was also pretty bad.  I was in Canada, and I assure you, this was not real syrup.  On one visit, the guy sitting next to me ordered the pancakes a la carte.  I was interested to see if they were different.  I expected that they'd at least be larger?  Fluffier?  Served with better accompaniments?  Nope.  Just three of the same pancakes, with what I imagine was the same syrup, and some unripe sliced fruit on the side.  Glad I didn't give up on the buffet and splurge for a la carte.

On the first day, I was pretty sad at this point, as the buffet was failing me.  I considered walking right out and rushing to my office, where I knew they were serving french toast and house-made croissants instead.

But this was just the hot buffet.  There were many more sections to explore.
    Assorted Cheese / Fresh Fruit / Hardboiled Eggs / Cottage Cheese / Yogurt.
Next comes the cold selections.

The first platter contained an assortment of cheeses, er, a "Local & International Cheese Platter".  I skipped it on the first day, but on the second, I tried the decent enough triple cream, and on the third, some flavorless Swiss.  Ojan tried the others, including something smoked, something cheddary, and a blue cheese, and discarded them all after a single bite.  I snagged a few grapes from this platter, but they were not good, the skins were very bitter.

Next was sliced fruit, including watermelon (and other melons subsequent days), which I'm allergic to, and a platter of assorted other fruit including pineapple, grapes, and strawberries.  I had to skip this entire area due to the melons, but given how unripe and unfresh it looked, I don't think I missed out.  Whole apples and oranges were available on the side.

Next was cottage cheese, hard boiled eggs, and uh, lettuce.  Just lettuce, no dressing.  Not really sure what that was for.

Finally, a selection of Dannon yogurts, in assorted flavors.

I moved on.
Next up is the cereal station, all Kellogg's .

On offer were your sugary friends (Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms), classics (Cherrios and Corn Flakes), and two varities that were new to me, at least by name (Vector and Two Scoops).  I'm pretty sure that "Two Scoops" is just raisin bran (there are "two scoops" of raisins in every box ...).  Anyway, cereal is cereal right?  I ignored this area the first few days.

On my final day, I decided to try the cereals.  First, side note: I hate these dispensers.  You can't just get a little cereal.  You twist and turn, it gets jammed, and then all of a sudden tons pours out.  Ugh.  Anyway.

Vector seemed to just be jazzed up corn flakes, that is, corn flakes that were a bit more crispy and coated with bits of something, but also fairly sweet.  Meh, whatever.

I also had some Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms, because, well, when is the last time you had these fun cereals?  If nothing else, I wanted to drink the cereal milk.

All of the cereals were pretty stale.  I guess they must sit there in those twisty things all the time.  And I can't say I saw anyone else try them.  Who knows how long that cereal had been there.

Additional toppings of dried fruit and seeds were on the side, none of which seem to really go with those cereal options, more what I'd expect with oatmeal.

Cereal offerings?  Pass.
Toast / Assorted Breakfast Pastries / Bagels / English Muffins.
Finally, we were getting somewhere.  More carbs.

The boring options are bread to toast (3 varieties), english muffins, and bagels.  I was impressed that they had not only plain cream cheese, but flavored herb cream cheese too (Philadelphia brand, individual pots), and a large assortment of bagel types.  The bagels didn't look particularly good however.

But I had eyes only for the middle section: baked goods.  I love my baked goods.  Sure, I know that hotel breakfast buffets rarely have good baked items.  These didn't look particularly great.  And why would this random hotel in Kitchener have anything good?

All days, one board was croissants, all plain.  I didn't try one the first day, but did the second.  The croissant was ... ok.  Very oily and doughy, not flaky, but I did like the sweetness to the dough.  I sliced it open and stuffed it with cheese omelet, and made a decent enough breakfast sandwich.  But I wouldn't get another.
Muffins and Danishes (day two).
The other board featured muffins both days (corn, blueberry, chocolate), plus a variety of other pastries.  The first day, it had cinnamon swirls and lattice topped apple danishes.  The next, cherry and custard round danishes.  The final, cherry round danishes and lattice apple danishes again.

The muffins looked generic.  The cinnamon swirls ... well, pathetic.  The danishes only looked moderately better.

But I braved onward.

The first day, the toaster had a big sign saying that you could not put croissants or cheese in it.  I understand this sign, as I uh, started a fire doing something like this in Sydney at a hotel.  But I wanted my cinnamon swirl warm!  It just looked so sad otherwise.  And I knew it was thin, so it wouldn't get stuck, which is the reason not to put croissants in, right?

I'm awful at breaking rules when I know they exist, but, I was confident that I wasn't actually violating the sign (it said croissants and cheese, this was not either of those items ...), so I slipped my cinnamon swirl in, cranked the speed up to as fast as it would go, and watched carefully.  No problem.

The cinnamon swirl turned out to be really good.  I took one bite and was beyond shocked.  It was really thin, had no icing, but ... somehow was so tasty.  How looks can be deceiving.  It was doughy and moist, with fantastic cinnamon flavor.  My mood changed immediately.  I almost rushed back to grab another, they were small, right?  Sadly, these never showed up on subsequent days, and were, hands down, the highlight of the buffet.

Next I grabbed a corn muffin.  I really like corn muffins, particularly when slathered with honey butter or strawberry jam.  Eying the jam on the table, I knew this was an option, if the muffin itself needed some help.

Like the cinnamon swirl, it turned out to be really tasty.  It was moist on top, crumbly inside.  I loved the grit and corn flavor.  Really, it was exactly what I like in a corn muffin.  I often only like the tops of muffins, and find the edges or bottom burnt, but this was delicious down to the last crumb.  My second favorite of the breakfast baked goods.

I would have preferred my corn muffin warmed up, but I didn't dare stick that in the toaster.  I'm sure I could have sliced it and done so, but, then I'd be getting into risky territory.  And really, it was fine as it was (although I did slather it with additional whipped butter.  Hey, I was traveling, no rules, right?)

The next day wasn't as satisfying.  No cinnamon swirls, to start.

So I tried a custard danish.  It had a decent enough sweet custard filling and slices of almond on top.  The dough was a bit oily and not particularly flaky, but, the filling was good.  Better than an average generic buffet, but not particularly great.

Then I eagerly dove into a muffin, this time, blueberry.  I loved the corn muffin the day before.  It only had tiny blueberries in it, yet tons of blueberry flavor.  I am guessing they were the little wild Maine (or I guess Canada?) berries rather than big juicy California berries I'm used to.  The blueberry flavor was there, but, the muffin itself just wasn't great.  Rather dense, lackluster, a bit dry.

Unsatisfied, I went for the other muffin selection, chocolate chip.  It had a nice crispy top and was generously filled with mini chips, but it too was really dry and quite oily.  The flavor wasn't there in this one either.

I was pretty sad.  I was considering getting yet another muffin, another corn muffin, when Ojan joined me.  He got the corn muffin.  He commented that he didn't understand why I liked it so much, and discarded it.  I tried a bite.  Yup ... not the same, at all.  Dry.  It didn't have the grittiness or flavor I loved the day before.

So day one: tasty cinnamon roll, awesome corn muffin.  Day two: ok custard danish, bad blueberry, chocolate chip, and corn muffins.  Inconsistent!

And day three?

I went straight for the corn muffin.  I crossed my fingers that it would be like the first day.  It wasn't.  Honestly, I wouldn't even know it was a corn muffin.  It tasted like a plain muffin.  Dry.  Stale.  I'm starting to think they bake these in batches, and ration them out all week.  I have no other explanation for how the muffins on Wednesday were great, Thursday were ok, and Friday were just bad.

So I went for the cherry danish, after the mild success of the custard one.  It wasn't very good.  The dough was incredibly oily.  The filling was just goo.  Meh.

And finally, the apple lattice.  This thing didn't look good, and I don't tend to like apple filling, so I never intended to try it, but I had exhausted my other options.  At this point, I had even tried baked beans and cereal, totally not what I generally go for, but I really wanted something tasty.

The apple lattice was the best of the pastries that day, and my third favorite overall.  The only other one I'd consider getting again.  The lattice top was nicely crispy, and the filling actually pretty flavorful.  Yes, it was apple goo, but it was nicely spiced, and also had bits of nuts on it.  Again, certainly not amazing, but I enjoyed the textures, flavors, and sweetness alongside my coffee.

And just a final note.  There was one thing that was really off putting about the buffet.  Flies.  Every single day, there were flies all around the food.  Every single day there were flies perched on top of the baked goods.  Every single day they buzzed around as you neared the baked goods.  This was ... really quite gross.  Couldn't they try to get rid of these (or, I'm sure they had?) or at least put the pastries into a case?  Or put a mesh shield over them?  It truly was gross.
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