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What does it take for a hotel restaurant to survive?

The standalone restaurant sector is exploding. But how are hotel restaurants coping with this shift? Vir Sanghvi checks out restaurants at The Lalit, The Grand, Ashoka and Vasant Continental to see how they are managing.

brunch Updated: Sep 27, 2014 20:19 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Megu. China Kitchen,Orient Express,Bukhara

You know how it is with hotel restaurants. These days, there is less and less reason to go to them because the standalone sector is exploding and some of Delhi’s (and Bombay’s) best restaurants are outside hotels. Besides, the standalones are nearly always cheaper. So you really have to find a good reason to empty your wallet at a hotel restaurant.

In Delhi, at least, the top restaurants in each category are still in hotels. (You want to know which ones? Fine. Japanese: Megu. Chinese: China Kitchen. French: Orient Express. Indian: Bukhara.) So you don’t mind splashing out for a big meal every now and then. But the rest of the time, there are many standalones to investigate.

The hardest hit by this shift away from hotel dining are those hotels that, for one reason or another, do not enjoy the best reputation for food. How, I wondered, were they coping with the restaurant explosion outside the hotel sector?

I chose four relatively untrendy hotels and decided to check out their food. In three cases, I was either pleasantly surprised – gobsmacked even – by how quickly they had got their act together. And one, I’m sorry to report, was even worse than I thought it would be.

Fine Balance: The Grill Room at The Lalit

The Lalit has been through many changes of name (Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, Hilton, Intercontinental etc.) and has experimented with so many different concepts (including a branch of the Thai-Belgian chain, The Blue Elephant) that you would expect it to have developed a reputation for good F&B by now. Alas, the food has never quite captured the city’s imagination.

The Lalit uses some finest ingredients in their menu, though their steak needed some fine-tuning.

So, I was surprised to see, when I went back there after a break of a couple of years, that the hotel had transformed its food and beverage operations. Apparently the remarkable rise in standards is thanks to Keshav Suri, the foodie son of the chain’s founder who has reworked the hotel’s restaurants.

I went to The Grill Room at the Lalit expecting very little and was staggered to find a menu of some of the finest ingredients available in Delhi, from US Prime to Tajima Wagyu. The food was good – a starter of beef empanadas was freshly cooked with perfect pastry and a Wagyu carpaccio was world class.

I thought they needed a little fine-tuning to get the steaks right (medium rare became medium before it reached the table) and the wine list was too limited. But on the plus side, they had a French sommelier who came up with some interesting pairings including a Chablis with the carpaccio (because of the citrus in the carpaccio dressing).

It, the Italian restaurant at The Grand in Vasant Kunj.

I expected even less from The Grand in Vasant Kunj. All of us went there when it opened as The Grand Hyatt and then decided that it was too far out. By the time we got used to the distance, the malls had come up and there were Set’z, Yauatcha and the rest to go to at a stone’s throw from the hotel (which is now just The Grand after ditching the Hyatt tie-up).

Also read: The game changers

Italian Affair: It at The Grand serves some authentic pastas (above), but it isn’t exactly an Italian haute cuisine place

I went for Sunday brunch to It, their Italian restaurant. And though I was not impressed by the so-called antipasti buffet (all bread and salad with a cold meat slicer that had no cold meat around it), I thought the pastas were surprisingly authentic.

The pizzas had a little too much tomato for my taste but were entirely acceptable otherwise. The chefs are Indian so this is not an Italian haute cuisine place (assuming, for a moment, that there is such a thing as Italian haute cuisine) but judged as a pizza and pasta operation, it is in roughly the same league as the much more successful La Piazza.

Nobody I know goes to the Vasant Continental, especially after the nearby Priya cinema complex has lost its mojo. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to Ano Tai, the hotel’s Chinese restaurant. The profile of the diners – large groups of Punjabi men and groups of even larger Punjabi men – did not do much to inspire confidence in the cuisine.

But the food, when it arrived, was a revelation. I ordered the Hunan/Sichuan dishes from the menu and was startled by how authentic they were. A pork with chillies was outstanding, a beef with fresh peas was out of this world and even a chicken dish that had seemed boring on the menu was perfectly spiced. The stir-frying was so exceptional that I asked to see the chef.

Chinese Wonder: The stir-fry at Ano Tai, Vasant Continental, is exceptional

It turned out that he used to work at The Chinese in Connaught Place (now closed), which was my favourite Chinese restaurant in Delhi and had recognised me as a regular there. What would he have done if he had not recognised me? Well, he said, the restaurant got two kinds of guests. There were many East Asian expats who worked in offices in the area and came to eat real Chinese food. And as for the rest, well, he just gave them the red gravy Indian-Chinese they preferred.

It is a nice restaurant, elegantly decorated and smoothly run. Everything fell into place when I realised that two Taj Palace veterans are behind it: corporate chef Nita Nagraj and Anil Saxena, a Taj hand from the old Orient Express days.

It is a shame that there is not one Chinese restaurant in the Taj group today that is of the standard of this restaurant. For my money, this is the best Chinese food in Delhi after China Kitchen, which is grander and more ambitious in its scope.

Nobody goes to the Ashoka any longer unless it is to pick a fight at a nightclub or a lounge. Once you enter the hotel, it is easy to see why it has dropped off the map. (They really should have privatised it years ago.) The Soviet-style décor and the strange smell of the corridors reminded one of an era when Nikita Khrushchev was hailed as India’s true friend and the Premier Padmini was still called the Fiat.

Nom Nom is a vast restaurant that rents its space from the Ashoka and has no other connection with the hotel. The night I went, we were the only guests in a large, dingily-lit room. The greatest hits of the 1950s and early 1960s played at top volume (Que Sera Sera, Unchained Melody etc.) in the empty restaurant and I had to pull out a torch to read the menu.

Not so Nom Nom: We were the only guests at the Nom Nom that rents its space from the Ashoka and serves Chinese (left) that I didn’t like at all

Nom Nom at the Ashoka serves Chinese that I didn’t like at all

I was intrigued by a section devoted to the cuisine of Xinjiang province, a region of China whose food hardly ever makes it to the menus of restaurants. The food is meat heavy, uses cumin liberally and is more central Asian in character.

So I ordered two Xinjiang starters – lamb on a skewer and spiced chicken. I also ordered what was described as a Sichuan style dish of pork with basil, only because I had never heard of it before, and a rendang, which is not Chinese but is usually a safe option. The first thing to arrive was the lamb, which had as much to do with Xinjiang as Banta Singh. And the chicken was not only entirely inauthentic but also came with a bowl of barbecue sauce.

We wasted the starters and when I told the waiter I did not like them, he looked as though he was about to burst into tears. I resolved to be kinder about the main courses to avoid hurting his feelings. Sadly, that was not possible. The so-called Sichuan pork with basil turned out to be a smelly (I think the quality of the pork was to blame), badly-made version of that old Thai standby, Krapow. The gravy for the rendang was undercooked and the meat was tough. I wasted everything and asked for the bill.

Now, the serving staff looked really upset. “Don’t you like the food?” they asked sadly. I said that no, I didn’t. “Well, can we at least pack it for you so you can take it home?” they persisted. What possible answer could I give to that? “No, thanks. I’ve suffered enough,” would have been the truth but they seemed like such nice people that I bit my tongue. Eventually a manager came up, refused to accept money (“Because you have not touched the food”) and apologised.

So no surprises there. The food at the Ashoka has not improved. But here’s my question: somebody has spent lakhs on Nom Nom. Don’t they ever wonder why the restaurant is empty? And can’t they turn out at least one edible dish from that well-staffed kitchen?

I guess some people just have money to burn.

From HT Brunch, September 28
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First Published: Sep 27, 2014 11:02 IST