The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that The Pierre may well be one of my favourite hotels in the Western world. The hotel itself has a phenomenal history and reputation. It is one of New York’s grand old hotels like the Savoy in London, the Crillon in Paris, the Oberoi Grand in Calcutta or the Mandarin in Hong Kong. It is still owned by a co-operative consisting of the owners of the many apartments in the building. Part of the hotel consists of these apartments (belonging to very rich people) and the rest consists of rooms and suites.
The co-op allows various hotel companies to take the rooms, suites, public areas etc. on long lease in return for a profit-share. For many years, the Four Seasons ran The Pierre (without bothering to invest too much in the refurbishment) till it took over Regent Hotels, inherited that company’s New York property and moved out of The Pierre.
In 1997, when he became Chairman of Indian Hotels, Ratan Tata declared that he wanted to turn the Taj into a global luxury company. So far, there have been more misses (St James Court in London is part Crowne Plaza, part dharamsala for well-connected Indians – though things may look up now that Digvijay Singh is general manager) than hits (the wonderful Taj Exotica, probably the best hotel in the Maldives.)
But the greatest success in Ratan Tata’s strategy has been The Pierre. When the Taj took it over, the hotel was a mess. The Taj closed it down for many months and spent the millions that the Four Seasons had not bothered to and reopened it as the new Pierre, restored to its former glory. At the time, I wondered if the huge investment would yield adequate returns. But my guess was that the Taj saw this as an investment in its global image. You can’t really claim to be a luxury company on the basis of an Indian dharamsala in London’s Victoria. You need to attach your name to one of the world’s great and most famous hotels. And so, the Pierre investment made sense not just as money poured into a single property but as a statement about the Taj’s global future.
My second concern was practical: was the Taj up to the task of going head to head with the world’s great hotel companies in New York, the most competitive of markets?
Early indications suggested it was. And this time in New York I was pleased (and speaking as an Indian: very proud) to see that the Pierre had became an island of discreet and refined luxury. Thanks to Heiko Kuenstle, who has been general manager since the Taj took over – and has successfully managed the unions and the co-op – The Pierre is a truly exceptional property.
The millions spent in renovations have paid off. The newly redone rooms and suites are elegant and luxurious. The food – always the hotel’s Achilles heel – has improved dramatically since Ashfer Biju took over as the executive chef. (If you are Indian and vegetarian, Biju can guarantee first-rate desi khana around-the-clock). The Pierre’s concierges are legendary (even before the Taj era) and they will get you into virtually any show or restaurant in New York, even if it is supposed to be sold out. The excellence of the service extends to the courtesy car parked outside the Fifth Avenue exit. If you have to be dropped somewhere within central New York, the Pierre’s limo will do it for free.
One of the Pierre’s greatest assets is its location. You walk out of the hotel and straight into Central Park. You walk in the other direction and you are in the middle of the great Fifth Avenue stores: Bergdorf Goodman, FAO Schwarz, Saks and even the Apple store. Walk towards Madison Avenue and you realise that Barneys is the very next building. And all the designer boutiques of Madison Avenue are between three to five minutes away.
If you go in the summer, the location can be magical. I arrived early one sunny Sunday afternoon and rather than go for lunch, bought a hot dog from a street vendor and found a chair in the plaza next to the Pierre in front of the Apple store. For an hour or so I just soaked in the sun and watched the pulsating drama that is New York; there really is no city like it anywhere in the world.
I always say that there are only two cities where you cannot eat badly: Bangkok and New York. But my first meal at Sirio, the new restaurant run by the Maccioni family of Le Cirque fame at the Pierre hotel, nearly proved me wrong. The restaurant was
soulless, lifeless and poorly run. The cooking was lazy too: my steak was overcooked and the Tuscan fries were like sponge fingers filled with oil. I went on a Sunday when the chef was off during a Memorial Day weekend so perhaps it is not fair to judge the restaurant. But it is a shame that Sirio, which has the opportunity to beat Harry Cipriani, which packs them in right next door, should be so poorly run. The menu is Cipriani-esque and the Maccionis are New York insiders. So why can’t they get it right?
But the rest of the food in New York lived up to my expectations. The two high spots were unfancy restaurants. Maialino is one of Danny Meyer’s operations and though it gets a so-so rating from Zagat (it is not among its top 30 Italian restaurants in the city), I would urge you to go if only to eat one dish: the signature suckling pig. This is the best pig I’ve ever eaten: nice crisp skin and the meat inside that was so tender that it melted in the mouth.
Like all of Meyer’s other operations, service is friendly with knowledgeable staff (my waitress chose the wine and it was perfect) who make no attempt to hustle you. One example: many New York restaurants now give you the option of free normal water so that you don’t have to pay for bottled mineral water. But at Maialino they come to your table with a bottle of free water and then ask if you want mineral instead. So there is no pressure to splash out for overpriced water. You just take the free water.
The other single dish restaurant I went to is new so it has yet to get into Zagat. The Marrow specialises in bone marrow which comes to the table, in a bone split open with a sea urchin topping. I’ve eaten good marrow before (Fergus Henderson in London must be the world’s marrow champion). But this was ethereal, glowing briefly around your mouth, hitting all the right spots and then
vanishing. I also had a whole hen-of-the-woods mushroom which is not something you see on many menus these days. It is a large
fungus (it can range from the size of a grapefruit to a pumpkin) that grows wild on the barks of trees. The Marrow’s version was delicious (and entirely vegetarian) though I would have preferred some politically incorrect butter in the finishing rather than a needless and vaguely offensive dash of truffle oil.
Other New York meals consisted of old favourites. Keith McNally has opened a branch of Balthazar in London so I thought I’d see how the New York original has held up. It is a vast bustling, noisy French-style brasserie with a clientele that mixes locals, tourists and celebrities. But despite the crowds, service was exemplary and the cooking probably better than at many Paris brasseries these days. I had excellent duck confit and not-very-French bread pudding.
I had other okay meals – including one at the Five Napkin Burger, part of a chain of vaguely upscale hamburger restaurants. (America has gone burger-crazy.) And I had an outstanding afternoon tea at The Pierre’s lounge. The food within the hotel (overseen by chefs from India) is so good that it makes you wonder how Sirio can get it so wrong.
The general rule in New York is that locals get it right and outsiders fail. Nobu is a hit. Hakkasan is not. Balthazar buzzes. Benoit struggles. Jean-Georges flourishes. Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse both had to shut their restaurants while New Yorkers ran Gordon Ramsay out of their city.
So congratulations to the Taj for taking on the world’s greatest hotel and food city – and winning. Shame about Sirio, though. Do you think the New York locals are pulling a fast one on an out-of-the-country hotel chain? I hope not. Because that is the only thing about The Pierre they still have to get right.
From HT Brunch, June 23
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