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A so-so liaison with the Liaison

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; F03

I'd never spent so much time thinking about pillows. But the Liaison Capitol Hill hotel encourages such fluffy contemplation.

Reserving a room online, I was presented with the Dream Pillow menu, which offered me six choices for the perfect nightly headrest. Did I want the sound pillow, embedded with speakers into which I could plug an MP3 player? Or the hypoallergenic pillow, which promised to relieve sneezing, morning headaches, sinus congestion and allergies? Or the magnetic therapy pillow, which helps reduce swelling, relieve insomnia, soothe aching joints and improve skin tone? I'm a sucker for anything that promises better skin tone, so I was tempted by that one.

But in the end, I couldn't resist the Swedish memory pillow. "ABBA-cadabra!" the description began. The pillow, it promised, reacts to body temperature, keeping you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. I was fascinated. How could that possibly work? (It didn't.)

A few blocks from the Capitol, the Liaison opened a few months before Barack Obama's inauguration and has tried to set itself apart by offering a unique kind of personalization. Besides the pillows, the hotel Web site offers a variety of items that I could order before my arrival, some free and some for a fee.

I could have had an Ibanez acoustic guitar delivered to my room for $9.95, but I took pity on my neighbors. If I wanted a rubber duck to play with in the tub, it would be waiting in my bathroom for $5. If I was worried about being bored, I could borrow a putter and golf balls for $9.95. And if I desperately needed nail polish remover, I could have it gratis. (Anticipating a nail emergency, I ordered some and ended up going home with about 10 nail polish remover pads.)

The best amenities, though, were the free "Experience Kits": a fitness kit with a yoga mat, exercise DVDs, stretching blocks and ankle and wrist weights; a BYOB kit with a wine and beer carrier, a corkscrew and a blanket; or a walking tour kit with a preloaded iPod shuffle, a pedometer, maps and suggested routes.

I ordered the last, mostly because I wanted to borrow an iPod, which unfortunately contained not music but a narration of scandal-related city sites (think Five Guys in Georgetown, formerly the French bistro Au Pied de Cochon, where KGB spy Vitaly Yurchenko gave his CIA handler the slip in 1985). The suggested walking tours and maps seemed to be useful for tourists, though.

Beyond the online menu, there was nothing very personal about the Liaison. A cross between a spaceship and a nightclub is how a friend described the bright lights, the pale walls and the '70s-style carpeting in the hallways and rooms. We were, however, intrigued by the black-and-white photos on the hallway walls showing the same man in various Washington restaurants and landmarks. Who was this mysterious, ubiquitous stranger?

Photography and art are key to the hotel's decor. The lobby and restaurant feature a series of specially commissioned 6-foot-high monochrome portraits of notable figures such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill and Gandhi.

But the apple of the hotel's eye is the restaurant, Art and Soul. The employee who checked me in made sure to inform me that the head chef is Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey's former chef (I knew that). Then she handed me a welcome letter noting that Smith is a two-time James Beard Award winner - and Oprah's former chef. And later, as I channel-surfed in my room, I came across a hotel channel interview . . . with Smith.

With all the hype, I expected a fantastic meal at the ArtBar, which carries the restaurant menu. I'm no gourmet, but I know I've had better shrimp and grits elsewhere. (A pressed vegetable and brie sandwich at lunch the next day, however, was quite tasty.)

That night, I sank into my king-size bed and forgot all the flaws I'd noticed in the room earlier - the white fluorescent lighting, the tiny bathroom. The bed was perfectly soft, and my Swedish memory pillow, though it neither warmed my head nor cooled it, hugged my neck perfectly.

And once I turned off the harsh lights, the transformation from average to perfect was complete.

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