When I was at school in London in the Seventies, the hotel scene was straightforward enough. And the London Indian restaurant scene was so primitive that most critics couldn’t even be bothered to write about the restaurants. But now, everything has changed.
In the old days, you had the grand hotels and then you had the American hotels. The grand hotels such as the Savoy, the Ritz, the Berkeley, Claridge’s, the Connaught, Grosvenor House and the Hyde Park Hotel, had been around for years, offered a measure of British-style service and had a dedicated establishment clientele.
The American hotels stuck to a corner of Park Lane, near Hyde Park Corner. The most iconic was the Hilton because it was not only the tallest building in the area but it seemed to symbolise the Anglo-American union that would lead Britain to greater glory in the coming decades. (Ha!).
The Intercontinental was the newest of the lot and though it is the London hotel I loathe the most these days, I remember quite enjoying my stay there when it first opened in the mid-Seventies.
The Inn on the Park was a bit of an odd bird, run by a Canadian company nobody had heard of. (Eventually, it became the Four Seasons and now flourishes.)
At some stage in the Seventies, a Sheraton that looked like a giant pineapple opened in Knightsbridge, but the Sheraton Park Tower never made the top grade.
Chinese surprise: I had never stayed at The Langham after the Chinese took over. But when I did, it turned out to be an instructive experience
There were hotels that were hard to slot even then: Brown’s, for instance, (the model for Bertram’s Hotel in the Agatha Christie book) or the Goring. But we had no idea what a design hotel was, the term boutique hotel had not been invented, and the idea that top London hotels could be run by Asians seemed preposterous.
By the end of the Seventies, however, things had begun to change. Hilton and Intercontinental had been run by American airlines (TWA and Pan Am respectively) and as the airlines began to fail, they looked for new owners. Hilton was bought by a British betting chain and Intercontinental was sold to a Japanese department store.
These changes paled in comparison to the big war that dominated the hotel world. Charles Forte was an Italian immigrant who had merged his chain of milk bars with the mighty Trust House group (owners of Grosvenor House) and had eventually thrown out the old Trust House management taking control of the chain himself.
Then, Forte went for the big prize: the Savoy group which owned Claridge’s, the Berkeley, the Connaught and, of course, the Savoy.
In those days, the Savoy group was part of the old British establishment, and was run by a terrific snob called Hugh Wontner. Obviously Wontner resisted Forte’s attempts to take over, injecting huge doses of snobbery into the battle.
Asked if he would shake hands with Forte, he retorted, "Good God, no! I’d probably have to count my fingers afterwards". An angry Forte responded: "What does he want? A full-fledged duke to buy his hotels?" (I think the answer to that was probably "Yes!")
Forte never managed to take over the Savoy group and eventually his own company was acquired by predators who sold off his hotels.
The Savoy group went through many changes but today it lies in tatters. The Savoy itself is run by Fairmont and owned by Arabs while the Berkeley, Connaught and Claridge’s are caught up in a massive war between their feuding new owners.
And now, there are so many kinds of hotels in London that nothing is straightforward. But by and large, it remains one of the few cities where Americans have no real role in the hotel business.
The Hilton and Intercontinental are quite second rate, the Sheraton Park Tower looks like a Holiday Inn located in a suburb of Riyadh and there are no Ritz Carltons or St. Regis properties to admire.
Hyatt, Marriott and the rest keep adding their names to other people’s hotels to no great acclaim.
The terrific desi: When I read rave reviews for Gymkhana (above), I was marginally sceptical. But then, I was blown away by the dishes
But the most notable change has been the arrival of the Chinese chains. Mandarin Oriental bought the old Hyde Park Hotel and today it is one of the London’s best hotels.
The Shangri La has just opened a hotel in the Shard, in the business district, which everyone says is stunning.
And the old Langham hotel (once managed by Hilton) has now become the centrepiece of the Chinese Langham chain. I had never stayed at the Langham after the Chinese owners took over the management.
But because I’m a member of Leader’s Club, a programme run by the Leading Hotels of the World (which markets separately owned properties) I get good deals on some Leading Hotel properties. Which is how I ended up twice at the Langham in the last week.
It turned out to be an instructive experience. The hotel was run like clockwork, the food was great and the Chinese had restored the grandeur of the property.
English hotels (actually, most Western hotels) fail because they don’t understand service. But as Mandarin Oriental and the Langham have shown, the combination of a grand old English property and Asian service is unbeatable. I’m pretty sure I will be back at the Langham.
Chicken Chettinad served with a dosa at the Gymkhana
By some coincidence, the Langham is a few minutes away from Gaylord, the only Indian restaurant in London that my parents would agree to eat at in the late Sixties because the rest were run by East Pakistanis (i.e. Bengalis) who made food no Indian could eat.
Gaylord remained the best Indian restaurant till the (admittedly, West Pakistani-managed) Shezan opened in Knightsbridge and became London’s poshest Indian restaurant.
But the trendy crowd only started going to Indian restaurants after the Taj opened the Bombay Brasserie in the early 1980s. The success of the Brasserie led to a flood of quality (and expensive) Indian restaurants and the rise to fame of such chefs as Cyrus Todiwala and Vineet Bhatia.
Now London is awash in Michelin-starred Indian restaurants: Rasoi, Amaya, Trishna, Benares, Quilon, Tamarind etc, some of which are very good.
Kid gosht keema methi at the Gymkhana
Without wishing to re-open a tiresome old debate, I think it is fair to say that Indians steer clear of some of these places because they feel the chefs Frenchify the food and muck around with the flavours to appeal to a British audience.
So when I read the rave reviews for Gymkhana, probably London’s most successful Indian restaurant of the moment, I was marginally sceptical. I was reassured when Bruce Palling, the one British food writer who has actually lived in India and understands the cuisine, gave it a rave review.
I finally secured a table there last week and to say that I was blown away by the food is an understatement. This is real Indian food, not fussy fusion rubbish that mangles the flavours, and the focus is on taste not presentation.
What makes its success so extraordinary is that it is doing nothing particularly original. The lovely two-level Raj-era room is in direct descent from the Bombay Brasserie. The slightly unusual emphasis on game has actually been done before – by Cyrus Todiwala, a decade ago.
So why does it work? My guess is that you don’t always have to do something new or different: you just have to do it brilliantly.
And the food was terrific.
Muntjac deer biryani served at the Gymkhana
I loved a creamy anda bhurji made with duck’s eggs and enhanced with chunks of lobster. And a chicken Chettinad served with a dosa was packed with flavour.
But the kitchen came into its own with the simpler dishes: a keema (made from kid gosht) with methi, served with pav bread, a delicious black dal, perfectly cooked palak and an authentic Kerala prawn curry.
The single best dish was a spicy biryani, packed with caramelised onion, with the meat of Muntjac (which I was assured was a deer from Berkshire) replacing the mutton we would use in India.
Dessert showed flair too: a kind of treacle tart with gajar ka halwa replacing the treacle and a kheer with the rice left al dente.
As an Indian, what pleased me the most was that a restaurant that served our flavours, without frippery
Frenchification or artifice, was so popular with Brits in the heart of Mayfair that you had to book days ahead to get a table. If that isn’t a tribute to the strength of Indian cuisine, I don’t know what is.
So who would have thought it? The Chinese run the best hotels in London and Indian food, cooked the way it should be, has them lining up for weeks.
This truly is turning out to be the Asian century!
From HT Brunch, October 19 Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch