Thursday, August 08, 2002

Aquaman at the Ritz-Carlton

NEW YORK -- Some of the best water in the city comes out of the tap, straight from reservoirs in the Catskills.

Anyone can show you where to get it.

Some of the most expensive comes in bottles, straight from places such as France, Sweden, Fiji, Italy, Norway, Canada, Scotland and various U.S. states.

Your friendly water sommelier can suggest which to choose.

Well, he can if you're dining at the new Ritz-Carlton hotel in Battery Park. The management says they have the only such person in the world.

His name is Filip Wretman. He's 26, a diminutive, GQ-slim Swede who came to the United States via various peaks and islands.

Wretman, son of the prominent Swedish restaurateur/chef/writer Tore Wretman, openly concedes he did not set out to be a water expert, much less the first water sommelier.

He studied the hospitality business at the Les Roches hotel school in Switzerland, and worked in the Swiss Alps, the Philippines and St. Bart's in the Caribbean before coming to Manhattan as bar manager at the Ian Schrager chain's trendy Hudson Hotel, near Columbus Circle.

So, how much did Wretman know about water when the Ritz-Carlton decided to get serious about its offerings at the new hotel, which opened in January after being delayed in the aftermath of 9/11?

"Not much more than anyone else,'' Wretman said with disarming honesty during a private water tasting for judges in town for the annual New York Wine & Food Classic competition.

He said he spoke to numerous vendors and spent a lot of Internet research time getting to know more about the burgeoning business of bottled water, a hit in many countries but particularly booming in the United States.

Wretman's research and tastings did more than simply acquaint him with the numerous brands of bottled water anyone can find in local supermarkets brands such as Fiji, San Pellegrino, Evian, Aquafina, Acqua Della Madonna, Dasani, Deer Park, Poland Spring and on and on 1,800 or so brands worldwide, including such familiar Capital Region brands as Saratoga, Diamond Spring and Vermont Pure.

His studies made him comfortable selecting and suggesting a range of still and sparking waters that make ideal accompaniments for cheeses, certain sauces, spicy or mild dishes, sweet or salty offerings, desserts and the like.

Some might think having an in-house water expert is merely a high-end hotel's contrivance or a gimmick to sell bottles of high-priced waters.

Contrivance, perhaps, but not a particularly expensive one. At the Ritz-Carlton, you can try as many waters as you like at just $5 a head, less than the price of a cocktail.

"We really see it as part of our mission of providing comfort and gracious living to all our visitors, whether they're overnight guests or not,'' says Nikheel Advani, the hotel's food and beverage director.

The Ritz-Carlton's goal at Battery Park, Advani notes, is to make it "a center of comfort and tranquillity in a rebuilt city.''

Wretman keeps a dozen or so waters on hand, but can come up with virtually any brand a visitor requests with at least 24 hours notice. After all, the Ritz-Carlton chain prides itself on catering to visitors' every whim. It even has a bath butler who creates various bathwater concoctions designed to refresh, soothe and pamper guests.

Should you think some bottled water brands are obscure and hard to come by, bear in mind the multibillion dollar industry is so lucrative the beverage giants have a hand in getting it to you, no matter your needs or location.

Coca-Cola, for example, has a controlling interest in Dasani and U.S. distribution rights to Evian. Pepsi-Cola has Aquafina. And so on.

Anyone who doubts the popularity of bottled water need only look around at people of all walks of life clutching bottles of water with the tenacity of an infant with its bottle of formula. They're at outdoor concerts, in offices, on the streets, in stores, on public transportation. So, why not in restaurants where someone who has researched the topic can advise them?

Water-tasting competitions are about as old as county fairs, but they've begun taking on a global flair. At the famous Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting Competition in West Virginia earlier this year, for example, Ice Mist from Sweden, Canadian Mountain from Ontario and Laure Spring from Tennessee finished 1-2-3 in the noncarbonated bottled water category.

In the carbonated category, Oaza Tesanj from Bosnia, Gleneagles from Scotland and Highland Spring, also from Scotland, took the three top places.

How does a water expert compare the art of recommending waters to that of recommending wines?

"Wine is a world of its own,'' Wretman said. "You can recommend much more specifically.

"With water, we didn't want to treat this in a way that would make people think of it as a hoax. But, it is quite true that different waters will have different impacts on the palate. They can help you recover the tastes of other foods after eating chocolates, cheeses, and so on ... With those sorts of food courses we would suggest a sparkling water to clear the palate.''

Perrier, a familiar name to American consumers, is one such sparkler recommended for cleansing because of its large natural bubbles, Wretman says. San Pellegrino, on the other hand, has tiny bubbles and a high mineral content, giving it a more distinctive taste that would work well with salty or very spicy dishes. Fiji is very light, with a high silica content that complements meat and game without interfering with their juices.

What about the ice cubes in drinks?

"New York tap water,'' Wretman confided with a slight smile. "Maybe someday we'll have that kind of demand for specialty ice cubes, but we're certainly not at that stage today.''


• It takes about one gallon of water to process a quarter-pound of hamburger.
• It takes 1,500 gallons of water to process one barrel of beer.
• Humans require about 2 1/2 quarts of water a day.
• A human can live more than a month without food, but only as much as one week without water.
• Only 1 percent of the Earth's water is available for drinking.
• About 60 percent of the weight of the human body is water.
• An elephant is 70 percent water.
• A tomato is 95 percent water.
• An egg is about 75 percent water.
• A watermelon is about 90 percent water.

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