Oh, Kolkata! City of joyous (and not-so) contrasts and contradictions. The yins and yangs of this storied city are many but, it can be reasonably argued, none is as hallowed as the North-South divide. North Kolkata and South Cal are opposites that repel. The latter has always regarded itself as hip (it’s newer). It also prides itself on its verdure and the elbow room it provides, though this is an increasingly tall claim. The North, an ancient, grizzled crone, with its stuffy streets and laidback vibe, couldn’t be bothered. Neither had a propah hotel to speak of, all the nice ones strewn like a string of pearls on a Central (downtown)-East (boomtown) axis. But now South Cal has one up on the North.
The Gateway Hotel EM Bypass Kolkata, to give it its full moniker, flung open its doors late last year. As the name suggests, it sits on the once desolate but now traffic jam-packed Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, at the Ruby Hospital roundabout, diagonally across from the hospital (so, although it’s positioned as a business hotel, they are receiving a fair share of medical tourists). It’s kissing distance from the shopping hub of Gariahat and other venerable stops on a typical tourist itinerary like South City Mall and the Kalighat temple, but also suitably located for forays into the IT hub of Salt Lake Sector V and burgeoning New Town. Airport access is smooth.
I arrive on a chilly winter’s day — chilly by Kolkata standards, that is — but GM Manu Sharma, who is a local boy, gamely emerges to greet me. The first impressions are favourable. Bucketfuls of light pour into the lobby through the floor-to-ceiling glass façade. The eye takes in the neatly arranged couches, settling periodically on exotic flower arrangements. The smiles are friendly if slightly nervous (it’s early days, and practised ease is yet to come). An unconventional rendition of Durga by artist Simran KS Lamba in the lobby puts to rest any notions of having arrived in a cookie-cutterproperty. This hotel can be anything it aspires to be.
In-room check-in is one of those modern conveniences we have all gotten used to. But I know service here is as crisp as a luchi when the bellhop offers to take those wretched airline baggage tags off for me — a first in my considerable experience (although service-oriented folk have offered to unpack my underwear in the past). After refusing gently, I sit back and take in the room. True to the fuss-free DNA of the brand, the bathroom is small, neat and functional. The essentials are in place — a work desk, lounging area, and a spring mattress on the bed. There is no fussy artwork on the walls to distract, just a simple graphic print of an iconic local landmark behind the headboard. In my case this happens to be the second Hooghly bridge. There is no separate clock cluttering the bedside table either. Instead, it’s integrated into a youthful headboard, which, were you to get bored, can light up in four different colours and, presumably, cheer you up.
I potter around in my head for an adjective to describe the room and settle for ‘smart’. And I don’t mean its ambience (although, that too). There’s a smart use of materials with an eye to economy, a trait I can admire, especially when it does not intrude on my experience in any way. But I’d be doing the Gateway a disservice if I convey the impression that they have been unreasonably thrifty. The lobby is carpeted after all and the rooms all have wood laminate floors.
You can’t open a hotel in Kolkata and not have food as its main course. Most of the Continental fare, perfected in Taj kitchens over the years, as well as their signature Active options for the health-conscious, are superlative. I speak from personal experience, having kept my snout to the trough diligently through my two nights’ stay. But the Gateway strikes the high note with their ‘Purbo Banglar Khabar’ — the food of East Bengal, laced in spices, dripping with nostalgia. With a chef as passionate as Ashish Kumar Roy at the helm, whose last stint was at the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, this is no cursory nod to a fine cuisine. Roy actually took the trouble (if you can call it that) toembark on a cook’s tour of Bangladesh, digging up rare recipes, and recreating them back at the Gateway as authentically as possible. The East Bengal fare includes such delicacies as kochu shaak (colocasia leaves), paat patar bora (jute leaf fritters) and main courses like gelasi, bhuna khichuri and a hilsa pulao. There are a variety of kebabs and mashes, integral to the East Bengali kitchen. The food has a no-apologies capsaicin count and speaks of the chef’s confidence and slavish devotion to authenticity. Pithas, rice-flour sweetmeats, provide a welcome finish. The patishapta, a variety of pitha I try, is heavenly. But then Roy has ferreted the recipe from a temple to pitha, the Noor Pitha Ghor in Dhaka, where he found out that for the perfect pitha he had to use Kali jeera rice.
It’s these little things that transform a mundane hotel experience into a cherished memory. The Bengali food is served in traditional utensils, which takes the meal up a notch. The vegetable chop, a popular street snack, comes wrapped in a newspaper. Even the dal at the Gateway is an improvement on the iconic paanch-mishali (five-mix), being a mélange of seven. Among its many enticements, the mini-bar also peddles ‘Budi Maa Masala Muri’. How does one translate something so earthy and sublime? ‘Old matriarch’s spiced puffed rice’ just doesn’t cut it, right? There’s more delicious service to savour when I eschew the phone and pop down to Buzz, the all-day diner, on a whim to place my in-room dining order. They fuss over me and tell me it will be poor form if they send me back without feeding me something — and I’m promptly served a mishti, much as the next-door mashima might do. Other F&B options include Swirl, a stylish bar, and a Deli. I do find the breakfast buffet a tad modest, but once all the rooms are up and running, I’m sure it’ll bloom, as sunny as a fried egg.
To work off those calorie-busting meals, I ask the GM to show me around their impressive banqueting facilities. There’s a grand 6,400 sq ft ballroom, which can accommodate 800 guests. State-of-the-art conferencing facilities, of course. If you wish to view the city’s mind-boggling pace from a safe distance, take the elevator up to the rooftop pool.
Kolkata is witnessing a room boom — a Marriott and a Novotel and a Westin are set to open and the ITC Sonar is adding a brand-new baby sister. But the Gateway, true to name, got there first. The flowers so carefully strewn across the hotel, which caught my attention when I checked in, made me think of the Gateway as a lotus in the mud. When I came back from a walk one evening, the diners at Buzz were visible through the glass. It all seemed so inviting, and I expect they have a bunch of walk-ins every day. The street now has a character it never had and I’m glad that, unlike the lotus, the Gateway has no intention of staying aloof.
Location 1930, Rajdanga Main Road, Kolkata 700107. 19km from the airport, 23km from Howrah railway station
Accommodation 197 rooms, including 6 Executive suites and 2 Deluxe Suites
Tariff From Rs 6,000 approximately; a variety of promotions on the website
Contact +91-33-66660000, email@example.com, thegatewayhotels.com