Friday, October 14, 2016

Gabriella's Place: A hidden treasure – perfect for private parties!

The owner, Gabriella with mother Lee in the background.  More pictures to follow including
the bellydancer!

Most businesses are successful if they make money and many do not really care how they do it.  This includes restaurants.  It was therefore such a delightful experience to be lucky enough to schedule my birthday party at Gabriella’s Place in the unlikely town of Nutley, New Jersey on October 8th, 2016 where my family, coming from parts of New York and New Jersey and I converged to experience not only wonderful food that was plentiful and beautifully presented, great and caring service that was from the heart, an amazingly beautiful and skillful belly dancer that captured everyone’s attention including my invigorated and lustful eyes, all packaged in a small family run Lebanese restaurant that was bright, charming, clean and perfect for the just under 30 people that came for this momentous 70th birthday celebration.

To be sure, my 70th birthday comes on November 18th, but I wanted to celebrate this milestone with my sisters who I infrequently see living some 6,000 miles away. And I was planning a cruise to Canada and had a few days in New York before it started.  So, with prompting from my sister, Sue who did much of the planning and hounded and reminded my family on several occasions about the event, we decided to find a restaurant and meet half way between my two family cohorts. This was no small chore for me having to work this from my home in Honolulu.  So it was a bit of an experiment and I talked to several restaurants before settling on Gabriella’s Place.  There was truly no comparison between the warmth and customer service that was afforded me; it almost seemed too easy and I was beginning to wonder.  The restaurant would be closed to other patrons and I guaranteed a party of at least 30 people.  I made the deal without the need for deposit, the cost was all inclusive of tax and tip and the food selection was decided including several courses of appetizers followed by dinner selections and dessert.  Without a liquor license, I was able to bring wine and beer to the restaurant without having to resort to the usual large restaurant markup which undoubtedly saved me hundreds of dollars in costs.   

While I’m not quite the middle eastern restaurant connoisseur, I did think the food was really delicious.  More importantly, my fussy older sisters, who are expert cooks and very discerning in their appreciation for middle eastern cooking – also agreed with my assessment.  Indeed, everyone there was fabulously content with the quality, quantify and diversity of the cuisine being served.   I’ll spare you the details of the selections; everything we had was wonderful.  You can’t go wrong with any selection on the menu.

I think there were only four of the Gabriella’s Place family members scurrying around attending to the guests but they were all wonderful, responsive and patient with the numerous requests.  I remembered to corner Gabriella and her mother Lee and snapped a few pictures of them to preserve my memory.  Service was warm and friendly, and I think they truly enjoyed serving us and participating in the event.  I certainly appreciated everything about that night and I thank you Gabriella and Lee and family for making this truly a special occasion.

What a perfect place for a private party.  I think they can handle as many as 40 people but it was perfect for my party at just less than 30.  There was room for the belly dancer to dance, for the guests to mingle and for me to dance around like a teenager.

At one point in the evening, I was playing with my iPhone and a glass splinter pierced my finger bringing me an unexpected jolt of pain.  Noticing this moment of discomfort, after the splinter was removed and without prompting, Gabriella went back into the restaurant to retrieve some rubbing alcohol and some bandages for me to cleanse and cover my wound.  Where else in the world would you get such caring attentive service? 

I can only recommend Gabriella’s Place with the highest enthusiasm.  And if you are contemplating a private party affair with around 30-40 people, I’m certain you will be just as happy as I am.  And you will thank me for my review and post one yourself. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Y is pronounced “yee” and not “why”

What an unusual name of a person - to have only one letter representing your name.  Well, at the very least, it makes it easy to spell.  “Y” is the name of a person who I admire and respect - who works as a floor supervisor at BeBe Tailors in Hoi An, Vietnam.  She is charged as one of a half dozen supervisors at the three Hoi An BeBe locations in ratifying the decisions of the staff as they attend to the needs of tourists and other visitors.  These are mostly individuals who have travelled from foreign lands to enjoy the exotic beauty of Hoi An while simultaneously commissioning the custom tailoring of dresses, blouses, shirt, suits, coats or anything else that can be made of their quality fabrics and materials.  She is the final word, the expert, the experienced authority, the sage.  Her astuteness and powers of observation are acute and instantaneous. Her understated pronouncements and refinements are always accurate and precise.

I can think of few parallels between my life and hers but one that comes to mind is worthy of contrasting.  As a newborn intensive care doctor, I ran around the intensive care unit from bed to bed, assessing each babies condition, deciding on a course of action and making swift decisions in management. Some of those decisions required thought and no action, but mostly required adjustments in breathing machine settings, medications, changes in fluid management, placement of tubes or catheters in various locations and/or calling upon other experts to provide their input and consultation.  But this was not done in isolation.  There were dozens upon dozens of babies to simultaneously manage. 

Running from bedside to beside, keeping track of each baby’s situation, dealing with the various crises of the day simulates an atmosphere much like a circus, with multiple shows taking place simultaneously.  The chaos and cacophony that is present is unnerving. I ran around intently and unswervingly, serious and focused, and poised for action.  This was serious business and there was little time for levity. I expected everyone to jump when I said jump.  I took myself very seriously. The truth is that most took me as a maniac of sorts, nobody wanted to contest my authority.  Type A personality doesn’t do justice to the demeanor and directive behavior displayed.  It was all the serious business of life and death.

Contrast this to Y – so back to BeBe.  The procession of clients in the change room area consisted of a series of adjoining stalls with movable curtains to provide partial privacy when changing. Each customer was attended by a series of attendants to get things done.  Y would enter the area and float effortlessly from shopper to shopper; the attendants would cede to her presence and authority.  Demure and imperceptible, she would rapidly diagnose what was needed for the next alteration, as she tugged and pulled on the garment here and there.  The attendants would scurry around supporting Y’s lead and directives. Then magically her famous chalk would appear – striking the garment with strokes at strategic locations to guide the tailor in his/her next iteration. Sometimes she would strike so many marks, it felt like she was drawing a picture.  Other times, she would pull out thread and needle, and attack the garment with stitches to reshape it to more perfectly fit the body of the customer.

Invariably she would start with one customer and move to another and then back to the first.  There was no apparent rhyme or reason to her movement but it was done with intent and purpose, grace and fluidity.  There was little drama and Y’s comforting approach, her quiet manner and her non-intrusive method made her nearly invisible.  Customers quickly realized her expertise and took comfort in her opinions and recommendations. It was if she was brilliantly conducting an orchestra. Contrast this to the lurching, aggressive, demonstrative, and in your face conduct that yours truly displayed in the intensive care unit.  

People like Y are rare in the world. Hard working, competent, non-intrusive, demure and understated. But to also be a natural born leader, liked and respected by those working under your rule, to exude subdued expertise and confidence, and to demonstrate the attributes of a positive role model for others to follow is a rare combination of talents. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

La Siesta Hotel, Old Quarter, Hanoi – The Best Hotel Experience of my life!!!

Supervisor Tiffany - middle and her staff

a king fit for a King

Hey, lets party!

Closing in on 70, I have stayed at enough hotels to differentiate between a good hotel and a mediocre one, between one with good customer service that is mechanical, robotic and staged and one with genuine, sincere concern over hotel guests, attention to detail and friendly service with a smile. Having stayed at one in Hoi An with the former brand, it draws even more of a contrast to my recent experience in Hanoi at the La Siesta Hotel in the Old Quarter. 

I can simply say that this was genuinely the most positive experience that I have ever had anywhere in a hotel in my life.  Unfortunately, it was only for one night, but I’ve already booked and paid for my return trip which will be for two nights next April. That will make it my third stay at the same hotel in the last two years.

From the moment we entered the hotel, we felt calm and cared for by the hotel staff.  The cozy layout of the lobby accounted for some of this but the staff was there to settle us in, process our luggage and reservation, serve us a delicious drink and a fruit cup and orient us to the hotel which was unnecessary as they discovered this was my second stay.  Then the offered us a discount for the following day lunch of 20%.  Realizing that we would be leaving the next morning, I asked and was granted this discount to be applied to dinner.  Now I realize that this rather obnoxious request on my part was a bit greedy and could see that this was not something that the lobby manager wanted to grant.  Taking this to her supervisor, they extended us a 10% discount. 

After finding out that I was a repeat guest, they immediately upgraded our rooms.  I remember the room I stayed in on my first visit was very nice but medium in size. Nothing to complain about but nothing to rave about.  But the upgraded rooms were suites and they were MAGNIFICENT, truly.  My friend and I just looked at each other and wished we were staying a few more nights in Hanoi to enjoy these rooms.

Visiting my friend’s suite after settling in, we both detected the noxious odor of cigarette smoke coming from the room next door. SMOKING IS NOT ALLOWED at the La Siesta but this was a room filled with four young men – need I say more?  My friend didn’t want to stay in her lovely suite because of the smell and she requested another room in its place.  Instead of assigning her to a regular room, which she expected, the hotel front desk staff gave her another suite, this time even more magnificent than the last.  It even had a really huge balcony and two bedrooms with three beds. She could have had a medium size party with guests flowing to and from the lovely balcony, sipping wine and even had plenty of room for a sleepover…haha…  But that suite was truly magnificent.

Later at drinks in the bar and dinner in the cozy restaurant, we were showered with attention and kindness.  Not just from one of the staff but from them ALL.  I cannot imagine such a consistent show of kindness and attention.  Everyone wanted to know our names, where we came from and we had various side bar discussions that resembled conversations among friends. 

During the dinner, the front desk supervisor came over and informed us that our 10% restaurant discount had increased to 20%.  The fact that this was still on their radar screen after the fact was simply amazing.  The fact that they were so wanting to make our stay comfortable and appreciative of this being my second stay at the hotel was very telling.

It’s hard to put into words all that went on between us and the staff.  I can simply say that taken together, La Siesta hotel, situated in the heart of the Old Quarter in Hanoi was truly the most enjoyable experience that I have ever had. 

It is important to mention that this is a four-star hotel that is not expensive.  Everything was reasonable including the bar, the restaurant and the room rate. Very, very reasonable rates!!!  But the service and attention could not have been better at any 5 or 5+ star hotel.

Everyone visiting Hanoi should consider staying at La Siesta.  I’m certain you will thank me for this reference.

Special mention to the following hotel attendants who were wonderful beyond words:  Tiffany, Ha, Tina, Luna, Alice, Giang, Long, and Peter.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Red Gecko, Hoi An, Vietnam

What do tourists really want in a restaurant when they travel abroad.  Living in Hawaii, I notice that many Asian tourists gravitate to restaurants that match their culinary heritage.  This explains the large numbers of Japanese traditional and Japanese fusion selections in Waikiki and other Hawaii tourist locations.  But if you are an American going to a place like Vietnam, it would truly be a crime if all you ate is hamburgers and french fries….  Or if you only wanted to go to fancy schmancy and overpriced restaurants that have table cloths and views of the river – you might as well just stay home.  So - be brave and adventuresome.

The food in Vietnam is fresh and healthy and the produce and meats are provided by local farmers selling their food at local markets.  And I promise that there is a taste to satisfy any palate.

Eating at Red Gecko was truly a unique experience.  Located off the beaten track, the restaurant’s physical appearance would not attract any following. Glowing Tripadvisor reviews sparked our curiosity and our experience mirrored these recent reviews. We had spring rolls, a wonderful local noodle dish – Cao Lau, grilled whole fish and my favorite local brew, called Larue.  They were all outstanding!

When we arrived at the restaurant, we were immediately greeted by Be who treated me like a long lost brother.  She was a tiny person, the remarkable product of a premature birth with a birthweight of 1kgm, a miracle of survival by any measure, considering what I would imagine the intensive care facilities to be in Hoi An 28 years ago. She was very friendly, and quickly began hugging me and hovering over us to respond to our requests and demonstrate the best and sincerest of customer service. In another life if I had been born a Vietnamese in Hoi An, she could have been one of the babies I took care of assuming my past history as a practicing neonatologist. Indeed, her warmth and affection mirrored one of appreciation for the care I would have ostensibly provided when she was in the intensive care neonatal unit.  Her brother – Rin was the meticulous cook and family members, her taller younger sister, and other relatives including an assortment of children were romping around the street with the adults huddled at the narrow street’s edge, encroaching on other passerby pedestrians, bicyclers, and motorbikes that were vying to gain passage.   

The grilled fish that we ordered was prepared by one of the uncles who carried out a large grill with piping hot coals to the street fronting the restaurant, just across from the family stronghold.  Then the fish came out, wrapped in foil to be cooked in front of our eyes.  This process took at least 20 minutes but the product was spectacular.  It was a whole fish, white and tender, filleted and ready to eat, and in the end, more than enough to eat for the two of us. 

With family members and children and cooks and helpers abound, we had plenty of entertainment to hold our interest.  Almost enough to lessen the saturating effects of the sweltering heat and humidity invading every inch of skin, with perspiration soaking through our every item of clothing without shame.  The air was hot, heavy and moist; it was a labor to breathe.  We did ask for and were granted one of their electric fans to be positioned blowing hot air onto our faces. Not sure if that helped or made things worse.  But we learn to live with what we have to live with.  In the scheme of things, I would NEVER have frequented a restaurant like this in the US. NEVER! In Vietnam, it was an adventure, a gastronomic experience worthy of the inconvenience and discomfort of the heat of the day.  Unlike the hundreds of copy-cat restaurants that lack distinction or charm, this Red Gecko restaurant experience is one that I will long remember.