One day I am going to learn to not judge a hotel by its website. It’s been an occupational hazard, though; through my years at OT, I developed a fairly serious addiction to those fairytale creations called hotels. I have wasted hours on hotel websites, fantasising about these ships that I will pass (and sometimes sleep in) in the night. I then dignify the addictive behaviour by calling it ‘homework’.
Thus, I am not unprepared to encounter overblown luxury when I arrive at the Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers in Chennai. Okay, that didn’t take much homework — this is an ITC five-star hotel, after all — but my studiousness saved me some embarrassment. I was a child in this city, and dispense boringly nostalgic stories every time I visit to anyone polite enough to listen. But luckily I didn’t gurgle about how this hotel was the site of a memorable night being dandled on Sonal Mansingh’s knee as a five-year-old while Usha Uthup cooed and growled at city socialites. I have no idea how I arrived at Sonal Mansingh’s knee but anyhow that was in another city, one that was called Madras. And turns out that that hotel was the Chola Sheraton, now unfortunately renamed ITC My Fortune.
I arrived at an unremarkable eighties-style whitewashed pile and was not surprised to be ushered graciously into a cool, dim lobby and offered the obligatory ‘welcome drink’. What made me blink, though — and it wasn’t just the contrast of glarey Chennai sunshine with cool, dim interior — was the ‘Towers’. This was what I was here to do: check out the refurbished Towers bit of the Sheraton Park Hotel &… To be fair, the website had informed me that the new accommodation is “tastefully designed in bright shades of white”. Then again, not everyone will be privy to the PR material that describes the Towers as a “hotel within a hotel”. Well, that’s what it is: a stylish, super-luxurious, superbly well-serviced mini hotel appended to an existing, already well-regarded hotel, the whole of it working with one efficiently beating heart.
Over the course of my brief stay, I am given a fine demonstration of the tradition of grand, near-overwhelming Indian hospitality. The kind that evokes a five-course meal with sixty-five dishes at a Bengali matriarch’s mansion, the kind that is reminiscent of the khao-beta-khao! blandishments at a jolly Punjabi matron’s establishment, of the Gujarati maharaj who considers eating six tissue-thin rotlis with five side dishes an insult to his virtuosity.
I hadn’t immediately reached this conclusion but the business had begun as soon as I walked into my Towers Suite. There’s a bowl piled with fruit, a plate stacked with cookies and chocolate and, most gratifyingly, a French press with sachets of proper coffee. The room is generously proportioned with a tricksy wooden partition that creates a cosy section for the king-sized bed and also features two massive LED televisions, one for each side of the divided room.
No TV for me, because I have work to do. Such as checking out the immense bathroom with its separate loo, shower, bath and dressing sections. Inspecting the trays of fascinating ‘amenities’. This is ITC, so it’s not surprising that the toiletries are posh Essenza Di Wills; but that I have been supplied with five of each item is a bit startling. I mean it’s only me here and even I don’t take that much cleaning. There’s also a tray filled with stuff that made my carefully buried inner girl a bit nervous. But apparently all female guests get: lip balm, nail file, wide-toothed comb, a curious object that I mistook for a feminine hygiene product but which turned out to be sweat-absorbing armpit pads and other girlie stuff.
Clearly, there’s miles to go before I sleep. But for the job at hand, to sleep is to go. What a good life. Especially experienced on a flawlessly firm bed with four pillows, at least two of which meet my usually impossible specifications. (Later, I find that the ‘pillow menu’ offers everything from ‘Supersoft’ to ‘Cotton Comfort’ and ‘Ortho-care’ and more. But by then, of course, I had established that I didn’t need to call WelcomAssistance #6.)
The Towers has been designed for the business jet-setter, with its striking good looks and extensive mod cons. This wing of the hotel also has cleverly designed nooks, all seemingly aglow with light, love and fresh air, which serve usefully as informal meeting spaces. There are naturally also boardrooms and banqueting spaces. The lounge is an excellent spot for jaded business peeps to grab a coffee, read the papers, check email or simply, well, lounge and gaze out at the grand old trees filtering in the bright sunshine.
Yet, this is a hotel that should be given serious consideration by leisure travellers too. The generosity of space and amenities in the Towers Suites makes them perfect for a family. The ‘rack rates’ are deceptive: First, it’s unlikely you’ll actually be paying as much. Then, the price includes: breakfast, four items of laundry, 30 minutes of Internet, 3 hours of boardroom usage, and, ah, ‘personalized butler service’.
That last means that Towers Suite guests will, within moments of checking in, find they have grown tails. Discreet, self-effacing, understated but ubiquitous tails. You won’t be aware of the tail till you turn around and find it wagging helpfully. “Shall I unpack for you, ma’am?” “Reserve a breakfast table?” “Laundry?” “Taxi?” This is a veritable tail that wags the dog. Or at least my breed of large, lazy, greedy dog — my tail is called Arunima and she was so efficient that I never really figured out what floor my room was on (she was there to press the elevator button), I don’t know how I got from room to bar (she was there), bar to restaurant and back to room (yes, she was there).
The room-to-restaurant escort proved crucial. There are no less than four restaurants, one pub and a night club at the Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers, not including the Towers’ own lounge and club. At least two restaurants — Dakshin and On the Rocks — are world-class fine dining outlets. The pub, Westminster, and the nightclub, Dublin, are arguably the city’s best boozy hangouts. You could build a holiday around eating and drinking at this hotel.
I jest not. Of course I knew that food was going to be serious business at ITC hotels, and you probably do too if you’ve read your Vir Sanghvi. This particular hotel is the home of the venerable Dakshin and base of celebrated chef Praveen Anand.
My first meal was at Dakshin. My arrival coincided with the concluding day of the food festival celebrating its 25 years. But it’s just as possible to view Dakshin as a permanent food festival. Being a South Indian food snob, I began my meal at the richly traditional restaurant just a bit sniffily. But I must humbly admit to having had to eat my words. Eating here is a celebration, I realised, as my palate succumbed to treat after treat: the fabulous but familiar Dakshin yerra (masala fried prawns), the piquant nandu puttu (stir-fried crab meat) and the unbelievable vazhai shunti (a raw banana dumpling that astonishingly tasted like a fine kebab).
I think it was when my eyes were popping at this last appetiser that Chef Harish bounded up. Turns out that the shunti is a product of ITC’s R&D in Thanjavur, whose Muslim community make this meat-like treat. I listen and talk with my mouth full, of meen pollichathu, venchina mamsam, kori rasa, tomato pappu, khaima choru, padpe upkari and assorted parottas and appams and idiappams. By the end, I’m groaning and Chef Harish is grinning, and I feel like a good dog because I’ve guessed two of the three fruits that he’s put into what should be an award-winning sorbet. (He’s surprised but pleased that I guessed jackfruit and banana; mango was the third.) I stagger back to my room to find that he’s swiftly rewarded me with take-home gifts of his outstanding fish and prawn pickles.
It takes a two-hour walk around the leafy neighbourhood of the nearby Madras Boat Club to face the prospect of dinner at On the Rocks. Before that I manfully withstand a ‘Malt Trail’ at Westminster, where I am regaled with Chivas Regal 12, 18 and 21 years. I think it was a refill of the 21 combined with the depredations of Dakshin that left me a bit foggy on precisely why a meal at On the Rocks can be spectacular. This restaurant brings to the city a unique offering: meats grilled on a slab of hot volcanic rock at your table, paired with wine, sauces and sides of your choice. This is a true gastronomic experience, and is rendered complete if somewhat corny with chef’s apron and hat. Sous Chef Roy Satheesan knows a filet mignon person when he sees her and there I went again… For the less theatrically inclined, there’s an à la carte menu that features several fine items, including a green pea (or, groan, was it asparagus?) soup that even a Chivas-fuzzy palate and brain found memorable.
Some ships do not bear passing in the night.
Location TTK Road, Chennai; 12km from Chennai airport
Accommodation 125 Towers Rooms, 19 Towers Suites
Tariff Rs 11,000 (Rooms), Rs 18,000 (Suites), on double occupancy; breakfast included, taxes extra
Contact +91-44-24994101, firstname.lastname@example.org, itchotels.in