Sometimes a single hotel has the power to rise above brands. It may change its name again and again, but that never really matters. In Bombay, the Trident at Nariman Point has that distinction. When it opened as the Oberoi Sheraton in 1973, it was the smartest new hotel in town and everyone longed to visit it. Since then the hotel has often changed its name.
Here are some I remember: Oberoi Towers, Hilton, and now Trident. But none of these changes matter to regulars who think of today’s Trident as "the old Oberoi" versus the smarter new building next door which opened in 1980 as the Oberoi and is called the "new Oberoi".
Bangkok has its own version of this phenomenon. When I first visited the city as a schoolboy in the Seventies, there were only a few good hotels: the Dusit Thani (still flourishing), the Oriental (it has its ups and downs), and most memorably, the Siam Intercontinental (now demolished to make way for the hideous Siam Paragon shopping complex – though the Siam Kempinski hotel occupies a tiny part of the old Intercontinental compound).
Old faithful: The still-flourishing Dusit Thani was one of the few good hotels in Bangkok when I first visited the city as a schoolboy in the Seventies.
At that stage, there were two famous hotels on the central Rajdamri road. There was the old Erawan, famous because of the Brahma Shrine below it, which was said to have been built to ward off evil spirits during the construction of the Erawan. These days, the Erawan’s space has been taken by the gleaming Grand Hyatt (its full name is Grand Hyatt Erawan) and nobody remembers the old hotel at all.
Next to the Erawan was the Peninsula, built in a grand but strangely peaceful manner that echoed the original Peninsula in Hong Kong. I don’t know what happened but by the time I began writing about Bangkok regularly in the late 1980s, it had become the Regent and was widely regarded within the hotel business as being the best hotel in Bangkok.
Then the whole Regent chain was taken over by the Four Seasons, which more or less buried the brand while profiting enormously from Regent’s innovative management style which it made its own.
And so, the Regent became the Four Seasons. (As did the wonderful Regent property in Chiang Mai.) But the change of name made no difference to Bangkok old-timers or regular visitors. No matter what you called it – and many people continued to refer it as the Regent – it was a beautiful hotel. It had great restaurants (the famous Thai chef Ian Kittichai started out at the Regent), lovely large rooms, and exceptional service.
I went back last week to find that the hotel had changed its name again. It is now the Anantara Siam which, I guess, makes a certain amount of sense because the hotel has been owned for many years now by Bill Heinecke, one of Thailand’s richest men, who not only owns many hotels (including the St. Regis right next door) but also has his own fast-growing Anantara chain.
Check in to luxury: The Anantara Siam has exceptional service. It has been owned for many years by Bill Heinecke, one of Thailand’s richest men. At some stage, I guess, Heinecke decided that the hotel was so well-loved in Bangkok anyway that he didn’t really need to pay the Four Seasons a royalty for the use of the brand name.
It had only been the Anantara for a couple of weeks when I stayed there but it was hard to see any changes as a consequence of the transition. On my first evening, I bumped into Dinesh Nair of our own Leela group. Dinesh has been a regular through three name changes and everyone there knows him well.
He told me that the executive chef from the Four Seasons days is still there and introduced me to the head of F&B. He also insisted that I eat at Shintaro, the hotel’s Japanese restaurant, which he described as ‘a real gem’. I listened closely because Dinesh is one of India’s great foodies.
But the meal I most enjoyed at the Anantara was at Madison, one of Bangkok’s most celebrated steakhouses. The menu is all Australian meat these days (mostly wagyu) and the steaks are quite reasonably priced by five-star hotel standards (given how high the cost of the raw material is).
Rare pleasure: The meal I most enjoyed at the Anantara was at Madison, one of Bangkok’s most celebrated steakhouses. The steaks are reasonably priced given the high cost of the raw material. They are still talking (not always nicely) about the San Pellegrino list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in Bangkok. Some of the ire is directed at Eat Me, everybody’s favourite whipping boy on the list because it doesn’t do anything unusual or ethnic but sticks to relatively unambitious bistro-style food. I’ve written about Eat Me before and yes, it is not among Asia’s 30 (or 50 even) greatest restaurants, in my opinion.
That said, when I went for dinner this time I thought the food had improved dramatically. The chef had the bright idea of seasoning the Wagyu Tartare with the spices used for larb, the northern Thai salad and the dish worked brilliantly. I liked the bone marrow too, moist and succulent in the centre of a bone that had been cracked open; but then I always love marrow.
The star of the show was a Tataki made with pieces of lightly seared wagyu from the Blackmore farm in Australia. I don’t know a great deal about the provenance of Australian wagyu but I do know that I’ve never had anything from Blackmore that was not outstanding. This time too, the centre of each piece of the tataki was so tender that it actually melted in the mouth.
So the next time anyone in Bombay (or Haryana) wants to get a fix of some dangerous banned substance, Bangkok is the place to go. The quality is great and the prices are much lower than Singapore or Hong Kong.
They were proud of their place on the Top 50 at Eat Me but were gracious enough to tell me that though last year’s number one, David Thompson’s Nahm, had now been dethroned, I should try the new number one, which was also a Bangkok restaurant.
They meant Gaggan, of course. Nobody in Bangkok can contain their excitement at Gaggan’s triumph. He has literally come out of nowhere to topple all the great sushi masters of Japan, all the French chefs with their Michelin-starred Asian outposts, every single chef in China and all the most established restaurants in Asia.
Going to Gaggan, for me at least, is both a pleasurable and slightly nerve-wracking experience. It is pleasurable because the food is always good. This is a kitchen (not just Gaggan himself but his whole brigade) on top of its game.
But it’s nerve-wracking because I wonder if I am going to be disappointed because there is always the danger that Gaggan has not moved beyond the dishes that made him famous. And now that everyone is turning chaat dahi into spheres and using the tricks of molecular gastronomy, it isn’t easy for Gaggan to stay one step ahead of the pack.
So the biggest revelation for me that night was how much Gaggan has grown as a chef. He is now the world’s most famous alumnus of Ferran Adria’s El Bulli Academy. But he has gone beyond those molecular tricks. His current obsession is Japan where he goes at least four times a year to watch the great masters at work. Last Christmas, he ate his way through France looking for inspiration.
The new influences are reflected in his menus. All the old Gaggan favourites are dismissed in the first part of the meal as appetisers. Then, the chef gets down to business. My favourite of the new dishes (and his favourite too, I suspect) was an experiment with charcoal flavours. He has never, he said, found a charcoal-smoked Indian dish that he found perfect.
So he set out to create one. When it is served (under a cloche so the charcoal smoke keeps infusing the dish), you are startled to see a black egg (or a lump of coal). It is only when you crack it open and break the delicious crust that you find a mousse of fish that actually tastes like shami kabab.
The secret is the batter. After a year of experimenting with batters, Gaggan had the idea of using jalebi batter (without the sweetness) because he regards it as our version of beer-fermented fried fish batter. The idea for the fish keema came from Bengals’s fish chop though, of course, he has refined it considerably.
It is a great dish and will soon be copied. But it’s worth going to Bangkok to try the original. Fares are low in economy and even business-class fares are competitive: I paid Rs 42,000 return for my flight on Thai, much less than the fare from Delhi to Calcutta, Bangalore, Madras or even Bombay. But book your table at Gaggan when you book your flight.
It ain’t easy to get into Asia’s number one restaurant!
From HT Brunch, March 29
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