Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Breakfast at Zephyr on The Charles, Hyatt Regency, Cambridge

Zephyr on the Charles is the restaurant located at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge, MA.  As a Hyatt Diamond member, I had breakfast included in my rate, so, I checked it out.

I had a lot of hope for Zephyr on the Charles.  At some level, I should know better, as it is a hotel restaurant.  Hotel guests tend to be rather captive audiences.  But, on another, I've had some incredible hotel breakfasts.  The SLS Beverley Hills makes the most incredible dessert-like yogurt parfaits I'eve ever had, with excellent pastries to boot.  The executive lounge at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney has some pretty amazing selections (swoon, the waffles).  Le Meridien in Munich has a crazy extensive, high quality buffet (stay tuned).  Of course, I've had plenty of low points too.

Zephyr on the Charles *sounds* like it should be good too, right?  Or maybe it just sounds pretentious?  Take your pick.  The menu says thing that also lead one to believe that the food will be excellent:
"At Zephyr on The Charles the quality of our food is second to none. We pride ourselves on using the freshest ingredients sourced from local suppliers, and capitalizing on all that New England’s bounty has to offer. Whether it’s our sustainably fished seafood from Foley’s, fished right off of our coasts, or the exciting produce grown right here in Massachusetts by Jansal Valley Farms, we are committed to providing you with the best product available. We work closely with our suppliers and they too share our passion for local, sustainable foods."
The verdict? It was ... a mixed bag.  Certainly not worth raving about, or going to if you aren't a hotel guest, but, I did find a few hits.

Setting

Tables overlooking the Charles.
The setting, if you are able to sit inside the restaurant, is lovely, overlooking the Charles river.  There are also tables in the interior hotel atrium, a bit dark, dreary, and noisy, but also closer to the buffet.

I was given the choice of a nice view or closer access to the buffet, and, contrary to what you may have guessed, I went for the view.

Tables were set with cloth napkins, a coffee mug and juice cup, and silverware.  The juice cups regularly had fingerprints all over them.

Service was fairly prompt, but I didn't really need anything, so I can't comment much on that.
Jams, Honey.
An assortment of sugars, honey, and jam were on the tables.

The selection varied per table.  On my first day, I had only honey and one type of jam.  The next day, I had all unique jams, including strawberry, raspberry, cherry, orange, and apricot rose.  Another day, I couldn't find the cherry jam on any tables.  Very inconsistent stocking.

Drinks

Coffee.  $2. (Or included with buffet).
The first day I tried the regular coffee.  It was crazy strong, and not particularly good.

The next day, I opted for decaf.  It tasted just the same as the regular.  Strong, not very good, although not offensive in a way I could pinpoint.

I was offered milk or cream alongside, but, I turned them down.  Standard sweeteners were available on the tables.
Orange Juice. $3. (Included in buffet).
Ojan asked for orange juice one morning when I got our buffets to go.  So I tried it.  It was ... generic orange juice, not fresh squeezed.

Buffet

As a Diamond member, I had the choice of an a la carte entree or buffet.  On the first morning, unable to make decisions, I just went for the buffet.  I ate in the restaurant, and of course took several trips back and forth to the buffet.  The second morning, I ordered a la carte, again dining in the restaurant.  The third day, I opted for the full buffet again, but that time, I took it to go, after observing others do so.  I had a big suite upstairs, complete with dining table, so, why sit less comfortably in the restaurant?
Takeaway Full Buffet Feast (for 2).  $21.95 each.
I really appreciated the to go option for the buffet.  I was provided a large cardboard box with multiple compartments, a small plastic box, and my choice of drinks, plus a bag and silverware.  They had to-go items all ready up at the bar, so I think this was a fairly common request, and one they easily handled.

The buffet includes coffee (Torrefazione Italia) or tea (Tazo) and juice as well.

The buffet was fairly extensive, but not really the highest quality.  The full buffet does include a few standouts however: the egg chef (Roe), the whipped cream, and the scones.  More on all this soon.  Besides the eggs/whip/scone though, this was not a high quality buffet, and the eggs shown only because of the amazing personality and care of the egg chef.

Continental Buffet

You can opt for just the continental buffet for $14.95, or, the continental is included with the full buffet.
Fruit, Charcuterie, Cheese.
The buffet starts with fruit, sliced strawberries, pineapple, and melon.  None of it looked that great, so, I skipped it.  Ojan said the strawberries were good though.

Next was some equally mediocre looking charcuterie and cheese, all fairly standard sliced deli meats and cheeses that got limp and soft from sitting out too long.  No smoked salmon.  I tried what looked like brie, or some other triple cream, and it was highly unremarkable.

Definitely meager offerings compared to many of the fruit, charcuterie, and cheese offerings I've had at other buffets, like the amazing mango and lychee at the Sheraton on the Park, or the ridiculous selection of cheeses at Le Meridien Munich.

Fruit, Pastries.
Next was more fruit, whole bananas and apples, and the pastries.

Of course, the baked goods were of the most interest to me.

On the top row was what looked like apple filled turnovers and raisin braids.  Next came raspberry and lemon danishes, and iced cinnamon rolls. On the bottom were muffins.

None of this actually looked good, but, you know I can't resist my breakfast pastries.  I skipped the apple turnovers, raisin braids, and lemon danishes, as I don't generally like those things.

I started with the raspberry danish.  It tasted about as good as it looked.  As in, not.  The croissant dough was not flaky, it was not buttery, it was not laminated.  The raspberry filling was just goo.  Meh.  Definitely not worth a second bite.

The cinnamon roll had slightly more potential, as it had icing on top at least, and the center of any cinnamon roll is usually pretty delicious.  The outside layer was dried out as I expected, and the inside was slightly softer, but, not ooey-gooey.  It did have cinnamon between the layers, but, the cinnamon filling wasn't very flavorful.  The icing was sweet, but, it couldn't really do much to save this cinnamon roll.  Overall, highly mediocre.

I think all the muffins were the same kind.  At least, I couldn't tell from inspection any difference between them.  They looked dried out and even burnt on top.  One morning, I tried the muffin, which I think was banana nut (ok, I got one for Ojan, and he discarded it after one bite, so, I of course tried it).  It was as bad as it seemed, hard and dry on top, not moist inside, and without any particular good flavor.

I did not try the items from the top row.  (See, sometimes even I don't try all the pastries when they are so obviously bad!)
Cinnamon Scone.
The final morning however, the pastry display had a new item: scones!  Now, the scones didn't necessarily look that much better than the other items that I had already deemed not worth a second glance.  I still grabbed one.  I'm not sure why, except that I was getting the buffet to go, and figured I should hedge my bets in case I didn't like the other items I selected.  And, worse case, I figured I'd save it for my flight later in the day.

It turned out to be really good.  Not just better than the other items (low bar), but, actually good.  Even though I had a full meal, I still devoured more than half of it with my breakfast.  I forced myself to save the rest for the flight.

The scone turned out to be a cinnamon scone, studded with little cinnamon bits, flavorful little pops.  The top was coated in sugar and cinnamon, and formed a slightly caramelized layer.  The texture of the entire thing was good, not exactly crumbly, certainly not dry.  The base had a nice tang to it too.

It was quite good just on its own.  It was even better when I dunked it in the whipped cream that I loved.  The chunk I saved for my later flight held up fine.

Really, this was quite good, the highlight of all my trips to the buffet and restaurant.  I really wish they had them earlier in the week.  I'd clearly get one again.
Cereal and Yogurt.
Next came the cereal and yogurt.  Raisin bran, cheerios, fruit loops, and corn flakes for cereal, plain, nonfat, and strawberry for yogurt.

I moved right on.
Breads.
After that was the bread selection, with sliced breads, bagels (including cinnamon raisin), and croissants, along with packaged cream cheese and peanut butter.

I pondered getting a croissant to make a breakfast sandwich, but, decided not to given the quality of the other baked goods.
Toasters, Toppings.
The final section of the continental buffet had toasters and some toppings.  The toppings included assorted nuts (sliced almonds, pecans, walnuts, pistachios) and dried fruits (apples, raisins, cranberries), along with brown sugar and granola.  You could use this with oatmeal or yogurt as you wished.

I got some granola to make a fruit crumble on the side, and it was fine, not remarkable, mostly kinda crushed and powdery.

Hot Buffet

The hot buffet is fairly extensive, with multiple hot sides and entrees, waffles, and eggs cooked to order for $21.95.  Still pricey, but, actually, more reasonable than most hotel breakfast buffets.
Hot Line, Part One.
The hot buffet began with some goopy looking oatmeal, chicken sausage and regular sausage, bacon, and flabby thin buttermilk pancakes.  The next day, the pancakes turned into equally poor looking french toast.

The only notable element was the warm maple syrup, which I tried, but I don't think was real maple syrup anyway.
Apple Crisp.
On my third morning, the pancake/french toast slot was replaced with apple crisp.  Oh, be still my heart.  Dessert for breakfast?  Yes!  (I mean really though, how different is apple crisp than a decadent danish, french toast slathered in toppings, etc?)

Anyway, it actually wasn't great.  It was mostly just chunks of apple, with a little mushy crisp topping.  There were a few plump golden raisins and cranberries in the mix too, but, that was about it.  Not much spicing.  Not much flavor.  Since the topping was mushy, nothing for crunch or contrast either.  It needed nuts, or thicker, crispier topping.

They do get points for having fruit crisp in the buffet in the first place, and for serving it warm, and with plenty of whipped cream on the side, but, alas, not a winner.
Hot Line, Part Two.
The final chafing dishes held uninspired scrambled eggs and decent looking breakfast potatoes, cubed, with onions and peppers.

But after that, things got interesting.  Waffles!  There was a cook next to the waffle maker, with a bowl of batter.  I really wanted to just ask for a fresh waffle, but, it was clear I was supposed to take one from the pile sitting under the heat lamp.

The waffle was ... ok.  It was light and crispy.  But lukewarm.  Really, mediocre quality, not really better than a frozen waffle.

But, the waffle toppings?  Fantastic!

On the side was a bowl of mixed fruit, mostly strawberries and blueberries, but I found some blackberries in there too.  The fruit was soft and covered in goo, likely sweetened.  Was it fresh, perfectly ripe, amazing fruit?  Nah.  But, it satisfied my sweet tooth.  The fruit was the same the second morning, and I again enjoyed the sweet gooey fruit with whipped cream (stolen from Ojan's buffet, since I actually ordered a la carte that day).  The third morning however, the fruit turned into a bowl of fresh berries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries.  While I missed the super sweet ooey-gooey mixed berries, I'll admit, it was nice to have fresh fruit.

Particularly when I combined it with ... WHIPPED CREAM!  Next to the fruit was a huge, huge bowl of fluffy whipped cream, topped with fresh blueberries.  It was not from a can.  It was really incredible whipped cream.  The whipped cream is what made my every meal.  I put it on the fruit, on the scones, on the crisp, on the waffles ... even in my coffee.  I ate it by the spoonful.  I know I sound ridiculous, but really, it was shockingly good whipped cream.

While I didn't care for the waffles, nor most of the baked goods, a large pile of the stewed berries, topped with way too much whipped cream, and some granola on top made for a wonderful treat.  Yes, dessert, but, quite tasty, and I balanced it by the next station ...
Egg Station.
The last area was a made-to-order egg station, offering eggs any way you wanted.  The cook had a big bowl of eggs in front of her, plus omelet base, and a slew of toppings to mix in.

She also had an incredible personality and really, really cared about her job.  I've never seen a buffet egg chef do such a fantastic job.  She was personable, and greeted everyone.  She asked your name, and called you by name, and also introduced herself.  If you wanted to go sit, she'd come find you with your order.

But she didn't just have personality.  She also cared about the product she was creating.  I watched her make an omelet, making sure to keep tilting the skillet to allow more egg to run under it, cooking it all properly.

After watching her make some other dishes, I decided to get eggs, even though I'm not really an egg person.  I don't like omelets or scrambles.  I do like fried eggs, but only over medium (I don't like totally runny yolks and I don't like cooked yolks).  But I think fried eggs are boring, and do want some veggies and cheese.  So, I tried my order, the one I do whenever I do get eggs to order, and rarely get anything successful.
Eggs Over Medium, with Spinach, Mushrooms, and Cheese.
My order?   Eggs over medium (aka, yolk not runny, but not totally hard), plus spinach and mushroom, plus cheese of course.

Usually when I order this, egg chefs look at me and don't quite know what to do.  They'll cook a fried egg, maybe flip it over once, and then throw some raw spinach, mushroom, and cheese on top and hand it over.  The egg is rarely actually done medium, the veggies usually not cooked, and the cheese unmelted.

But Roe delivered.  Perfect execution of every component, even though it looked like a crazy mess.

First, she cooked the spinach and mushrooms, wilting the spinach, cooking the mushrooms.  She asked if I wanted seasoning, and added the salt and pepper with a flourish, and, I think I even heard a "bam!", Emeril-style.  Next, the eggs.  She kept a watchful eye on them, making sure they cooked perfectly.  And finally, cheese.  A VERY generous sprinkle of cheese on top, made with a comment about "You can't ever have too little cheese".  After the cheese was added, she covered the skillet with a plate to melt it.  After a few moments, she slid the whole thing onto a plate with a "Boo-yah!" and handed it over.

Honestly, I think that even if I didn't like the eggs, I would have liked the experience of ordering them enough to be happy.  But the result, as un-pretty as it was, was delicious.

I actually ordered "one egg over medium", but, she made two.  Given that I was planning only one day at the buffet, and had a second plate with multiple baked goods, a waffle, a pile of whipped cream, and fruit, I really didn't want two.  But then I tasted the creation, and, well, it was too good not to finish.

The eggs were exactly as I wanted.  The whites didn't get too rubbery, but were just a bit crispy on the edges.  The yolks had some ooze to them, but were certainly set.  Excellent.  (Egg-cellent?) The veggies were also perfectly cooked, and well seasoned.  And the cheese, although slightly under-melted when handed over to me, was fully melted by the time I got to my table.

The eggs were really egg-cellent, and were the first time in recent memory that I've actually enjoyed eggs.  But, this was certainly not a healthy item, even though I did have the veggies.  She used a very generous amount of oil on the veggies and eggs, and, there was a LOT of cheese.  It felt very heavy, although, delicious.
Eggs Over Medium, Mushrooms, Spinach, Caramelized Onions. (Missing CHEESE!)
After my egg success on the first day, on my final day, I ordered nearly the same thing as I did on the first, only this time, I added caramelized onions too.  And I got it to go.

Clearly, takeaway presentation isn't anything to write home about, but, wow, it looked really bad.  Also, um, seriously oily.  Do you see the pools of oil in here?  I'm not sure what went wrong, because it was my same wonderful egg cook as the first day.

The veggies were just too oily to really enjoy.  Spinach absolutely soaked in oil is not enjoyable.  The onions were super flavorful though, and sweet.  I'd certainly go for the spinach, onion, mushroom combo again.

The eggs were nicely done, perfectly over-medium as I requested.  I liked the egg parts, when I could extract them from the oily puddle.

Besides the oil though, there was another problem.  Where was my cheese?  Doh.  She forgot my cheese, which really made a difference last time.

So, nicely cooked eggs, but the veggies were ruined by oil, and the cheese was missing.  Sadness.

A La Carte

A La Carte Menu - July 2016.
The a la carte breakfast menu is broken into three rather strange categories: Regional, Comfort, and Alternatives.   Those names all sound fairly normal, but, they didn't seem quite accurate to describe what was on the sections.

For example, "Regional" included Cranberry Pecan French Toast, which I guess highlights Cape Cod Cranberries, and a Maine Lobster Benedict, featuring well, Maine lobster, but what about the Classic Eggs Benedict?  Nothing really regional about that.  This section also seemed like it hadn't been updated with the seasons.  The aforementioned french toast was cranberry french toast, with apple chutney on top.  Doesn't that scream fall or even winter to you?  The waffle was a pumpkin waffle, with cranberry chutney.  Again, fall flavors.  I also found the "New England Breakfast Wrap" rather amusing, as it was filled with eggs, potatoes, Portuguese sausage, avocado, sweet onion, and Vermont cheddar.  Besides the cheddar, uh, what is New England about that?  Certainly not the Portuguese sausage or the likely-California-grown avocado.

Anyway.  The "Comfort" section really was just a bunch of classics, not really comfort foods.  If anything, the "Regional" section had more comfort items, as it had pancakes, french toast, and waffles.  The "Comfort" section had basics like eggs any style, corned beef hash, steak and eggs, omelets, a healthy frittata, and oatmeal.  Nearly all these items were available at the buffet as well and seemed highly uninspired.

Finally, the "Alternatives" were even more basic, and really should have just been labelled as sides: sausage, bacon, corned beef hash, granola, cereal, yogurt, and smoothies.

A la carte beverages (coffee, tea, espresso, juice) rounded out the menu.

Ordering a la carte took ... forever.  Nearly 30 minutes from the time I placed my order until my french toast arrived.
Cranberry Pecan French Toast. $14.
"Locally baked cranberry pecan bread, apple chutney, maple syrup, butter."

I'll admit that I was rather disappointed when my order finally arrived.  It didn't look particularly good.  Thin slices of bread.  Regular dried cranberries on top.  Some very uninspired apple "chutney".  And why serve butter on the side?

Sure, it basically matched the description, and I realize that what I'd actually want is french toast with summer berries, as it was July after all, and uh, some whipped cream on the side.  I quickly asked for the whipped cream.

And then I tried the french toast.  The toppings were as horrible as I suspected.  The cranberries were just cranberries, something I never like.  The apple stuff was just chunks of apple, slightly spiced, both mushy and firm at the same time, and just totally not what I wanted in July.  Maybe in the fall?  I didn't use the butter.  Do people really use butter on french toast?

The french toast itself was actually pretty good.  The bread wasn't at all what I expected though.  "Locally baked cranberry pecan bread" made me expect thick slices of artisanal bread or something.  This was thin slices, but at least they weren't standard sandwich bread.  I also, uh, expected pecans?  There were certainly no pecans in here.  The bread did have a few chunks of dried cranberry in it (although, really, I kinda think they were raisins ... without the menu description, I would have called this cinnamon raisin bread, not cranberry pecan bread).  But the bread was really well soaked, had nice cinnamon flavor, and was well cooked.  It was perfectly moist, but not too eggy, and the edges were a bit crisp.  The little bit of powdered sugar on top was really complimentary.

Without the topping though, it was still a bit plain.  However, dunked in maple syrup , it was quite enjoyable.  The whipped cream I asked for came quickly, but, it was a bowl of whipped cream clearly from a can.  This was really surprising to me, as the buffet had such high quality fresh whipped cream, and that is really what I wanted.

In the end, I pushed the toppings aside, and kinda devoured the french toast, slathered with plenty of syrup.  I enjoyed it.  If I was staying in the hotel longer, I'd probably get it another day (leaving out the cranberries and apple chutney, and asking for fruit instead) but, it wasn't something I wanted two days in a row, and I tried it on my second of three days.  The portion was crazy huge for $14.
Zephyr on the Charles Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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