These days, South India is the centre of the growing Indian hotel industry. The fanciest palace hotel (most lovingly restored and newly opened) is the Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad. The most spectacular city hotel to ever open in India will be the Grand Chola in Chennai (I had a preview but I’m not allowed to tell you about it till ITC opens it officially). Bangalore is adding hotel rooms faster than any other city in India. And Kerala is our country’s greatest tourist destination.
But 35 years ago, things were very different. When I first went to Bangalore in 1976, there was only the Ashoka, with the West End (which completes 125 years this year, by the way) chugging along as a run-down guesthouse for horse-racing fans and gamblers who would fly out from Bombay. I went from Bangalore to Madras and there was only the Taj Coromandel, the first modern five-star hotel in South India. The second-best alternative was the Connemara, then as now, my favourite old world Madras hotel, but in those days, still a sloppily-run Spencer’s property. But, an hour or so outside Madras was what I regarded as the finest and most romantic beach resort I had seen: Fisherman’s Cove, where the cottages were actually on the beach and you could wake up each morning to the sound of the waves.
Over the years, I went back to South India again and again. Some things changed, not necessarily for the better. Bangalore went from being a sleepy garden town to becoming first an IT hub and then, an urban nightmare (the situation that prevails today). But the hotels got better. The Taj took over the West End and restored it to its former glory. It transformed Bangalore’s food scene with two restaurants: Southern Comfort at the Residency and Karavali at the Gateway. ITC built the wonderful Windsor Manor and then, more recently, the smoothly efficient Gardenia.
I’m not sure Madras changed that much though, even when it became Chennai. For years, the Taj Coromandel remained the city’s premier hotel and though the Taj took over the Connemara and refurbished it, the company also destroyed the hotel’s
character by turning it into a business hotel, an act of historical vandalism that is otherwise uncharacteristic of the Tatas.
But I went to Madras for the food and the sea. In 1997, the Taj opened what quickly became my favourite restaurant in the city: Southern Spice. Though the Taj has an unbeatable record for South Indian food – the first restaurant to serve appams in a five-star hotel (Southern Comfort in 1983); the first coastal seafood restaurant (Karavali) which started the craze that spread to Bombay; the first hotel to put dosas on the breakfast menu (the Bombay Taj in 1972) etc, Southern Spice was not entirely original.
Though everyone involved (mainly Ajit Kerkar and Shankar Menon who brilliantly managed the Taj’s southern adventure and dreamt up Southern Spice) went to great lengths to deny it, the restaurant was essentially a rip-off of Dakshin, which ITC had opened at its Sheraton Park hotel in Adyar. Even the conceit was the same: a menu divided according to South Indian states and recipes sourced from families.
Despite the lack of originality, I always preferred Southern Spice to Dakshin. I knew the chef who had planned the menu – ‘Nat’ Natarajan – from his Bombay days and in all the years I went to Southern Spice, I never ever had a bad meal.
I went to Madras ten months or so ago and returned to Southern Spice. Chefs had come and gone in the decade and a half since the restaurant had opened but the food was still as brilliant as I remembered. But N Prakash, the hotel’s general manager told me that this would probably be my last meal there: the restaurant was shutting down for renovation.
And now ten months later, a new restaurant has taken its place. They’ve had the sense to keep the old name (Southern Spice) but to all intents and purposes, this is a completely new experience. The décor is more contemporary, the look is lighter and they’ve finally junked the old Dakshin rip-off idea of listing the food state by state. Instead, the menu assumes that you are there to eat and have no interest in a geography lesson.
I ate there twice last fortnight. The first time, I had dinner with Nat (who has overseen the new menu though his day job is corporate chef for Gateway Hotels) and Prakash (who is completely passionate about the food) and wondered if I was dreaming: Was the restaurant really that good? I had never eaten as well at the old Southern Spice – and I had eaten brilliantly there.
So I went back for lunch and ate nearly everything else on the menu. My conclusion: I wasn’t dreaming. This really is a terrific restaurant with amazing food. I won’t recommend individual dishes because everything was so terrific but I will say that I could live on their rasams, day in and day out.
The last time around, a plan to roll out more Southern Spices was abandoned because of serious upheaval within the Taj group. But the new Southern Spice really is a world-class restaurant. The Taj should consider opening a branch in Delhi.
If I was surprised by how much better Southern Spice was, then my feelings about Fisherman’s Cove were more complicated. Throughout the Seventies and the Eighties when I was a regular visitor there, the Cove was the unloved stepchild of the Taj group which was then entirely fixated on its Goa properties. Even though JRD Tata said it was his favourite Taj resort, the company refused to take much interest in it.
Part of the problem was that it made no money and the Taj had to subsidise it with the profits from the Coromandel. It got week-end business (Madras residents looking for a break) but it remained empty for much of the week. (Who thought of Madras when they were looking for a beach resort?)
This suited me just fine. Rates were low. Rooms were easily available and so, I would decamp to the Cove for days on end. I would take one of the relatively basic (by Taj standards) cottages on the beach, walk by the sea, sit out and watch the crabs as they scurried around the beach, and eat.
And boy did I eat! The food at the Cove was always good. (Nat was the chef there in the 1980s). I would sit at a little bar on the beach called Bay View Point, eat freshly caught fish (there is a fishing village next door), grilled on the barbecue or pan-fried with local spices. Or I would devour the fresh oysters from the region. In those days, it was hard for restaurants to get wine so I would take my own bottle of Chablis and eat oyster after oyster (my record was 48 – I think – in one sitting), watching the moon rise over the Bay of Bengal.
Then, Madras expanded. The city grew so far that my little retreat on the road to Mahabalipuram became a suburb. (The city limits now end just before the Cove). A new IT City came up nearby and suddenly, every IT hotshot started demanding rooms at the Cove.
The consequences of all this have been that far from being the sleepy, money-loser that it was for decades, the Cove is now booming. It will probably make `50-60 crore in profit this year. It has among the highest average room rates in Chennai. A new wing has been added for conferences. And my quiet Bay View Point has become a flourishing restaurant with the highest average check in Madras.
So, my feelings are complicated. I am happy that the hotel is doing so well but unreasonably angry that the world has invaded my private hideaway.
There are compensations, of course. With size comes efficiency. Under BC Kumar, its current general manager, the hotel is better run than ever before. It offers a variety of new experiences: I did a dune buggy ride on the beach, a picnic in a nearby casuarina grove and an elegant dinner on the sands.
They also offered to take me snake-catching, I asked if the snakes were poisonous. “Oh yes, sir,” they said. “We have cobras, vipers, every kind of poisonous snake.”
“Aren’t you worried that people might be bitten?”
“Not to worry, sir. We carry an anti-venom injection with us. We will just give it to you if the cobra bites.”
“Thanks, very much. I’ll just read my book on the beach.”
Not that I needed to go looking for snakes. The cottages on the beach are still where they were. The hotel is lovely. (I shot many segments for Custom Made at Fish Cove: the magician, the Tanjore painting, the Monicatini, the glass sculptor, the yoga on the beach etc. So you may have some idea of how beautiful it is). And under chef Samir, the food is terrific – though this time, I stopped at a mere dozen oysters!
If Fisherman’s Cove is one of the oldest hotels in the Taj group (one of the first four, I reckon), then the Vivanta at Bekal is the single newest hotel. It opened a couple of weeks ago with a celebratory party, a juggling bartender and dances by Astad Deboo.
Bekal is set to become the newest holiday destination in South India. It is in Kerala near the border with Karnataka (I drove in from Mangalore airport), already boasts of a Lalit Hotel and is unusually beautiful.
The Taj property is grouped under the Vivanta brand which is headed by Veer Vijay Singh, an old school friend of mine and one of the Taj’s two most senior managers. Vivanta hotels differ from Taj luxury hotels – in theory – by being hipper, younger and less formal but the distinction can be hard to grasp, as is usually the case when a new brand architecture is imposed on an old chain.
The Bekal property could well be a luxury hotel judging by the way it is built: just 75 cottages on 25 acres, or three guests per acre, which is an astonishing ratio for any resort hotel anywhere in the world. Many of the cottages overlook the Kerala backwaters and there is also a sea-beach at the other end of the hotel.
The natural beauty aside, the hotel’s two strongest features are the food and the spa. That the food should be good is no
surprise given that the Vivanta hotels are part of Ananda Solomon’s brief. But Bekal is special because Ananda’s family is from the region and he understands the cuisine better than most other chefs. The day after the party, Ananda and Valentine, the resort’s executive chef, served up an amazing Moplah breakfast, using recipes gathered from Kerala’s Muslim community.
The spa marks Taj’s attempt to challenge the hegemony of ITC’s Kaya Kalp spas in this category. The Jiva spa at Bekal is huge (1,65,000 square feet, making it the biggest spa in India) and offers complete wellness packages including havens for spiritual healing. The Taj is clearly hoping that guests will come for week-long spa packages and Ananda has even created special spa food to suit the Jiva philosophy.
Apart from the problem of access (Bekal is a two-hour drive from Mangalore airport), there’s no reason why the hotel – designed by an architect who understands Balinese styles – shouldn’t be a huge success. It is proof that the same group can run two outstanding resorts successfully, even if one opened in 1975 and the other in 2012.
And anyway, it’s always great to be in South India.
From HT Brunch, March 25
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