I once confessed in the pages of this magazine to loving hotels. (Then they gave me more work and called it being Hotels Editor.) Anyhow, that was several years ago, and you’d have thought the ardour would have cooled. Instead earlier this year, I eagerly boarded a Chennai-bound plane — excited mainly because I was headed to a new hotel called Taj Mount Road.
The journey from Chennai airport through the city was a nostalgicist’s dream come true. It’s a dream I’ve had repeatedly since leaving Madras as a 12-year-old: hoping that nearly three decades later, the arch conservative city of my childhood has conserved its peculiar character — an ancient acidity and ugly dignity. The smell of mallipu as sharp, the political cutouts as huge, the roads as useless, Kalakshetra still a model of the high moral and aesthetic life, Ponnusamy’s still a simple temple to food, and VTI frozen beyond time.
Of course, things like hotel names aren’t mere accidents when the properties in question belong to corporate houses likeTaj Hotels. But this is a felicitous christening: a name designed to appeal to Madras sentimentalists like me, for whom ‘Mount Road’ is a warm invitation to visit in the way that ‘Anna Salai’ is unlikely to be; to the tourist hoping to find traces of the city’s considerable colonial past amid its robustly Dravidian present; and — most important in terms of ‘positioning’ — to the business traveller looking for a smart, and smart-sounding, hotel that combines the advantages of location, pricing and Taj service (when it’s good, it’s very very good).
For this is what the Taj Mount Road aims to be and, from what I could tell, was competently on the way to becoming: a first-class business hotel. Its location is superb, just off Mount Road/Anna Salai, on the quiet Club House Road — sister property Taj Connemara is across the road, next to the Spencer’s mall; it’s a minute away from the India Tourist Office, a few minutes from the prehistoric Victoria Technical Institute.
It doesn’t take much to be slapped awake from nostalgic ramblings — just a tall blue glass façade or two when you’re expecting a whitewashed bungalow, some glacial contemporary décor when you’re picturing riotous Tamilian colour, restaurants that wouldn’t be out of place in New York, staffed by smart young men and women who could be from anywhere in the country.
All this was, of course, demonstrating a crucial aspect of successful business-hotelness — where rushed guests from anywhere in the world can hope to feel comfortable in cosmopolitan surroundings rather than jarred by excessive local feeling. My inability to recall the exact shade of room furnishings is less an indication of an unobservant eye than a tribute to the undemanding ambience. For how many guests really care? It’s the other stuff that’s important, and Taj gets them right: beds with good, not-too-soft mattresses, ample seating, bathrooms with admirable showers and top-of-the-line toiletries, room service that brings you excellent food quickly.
It’s in the F&B department that the Taj Mount Road really sparkles. Again divining that interesting food options are among the few exciting leisure activities that the business guest can spare time for, the hotel’s three restaurants are all well-serviced venues that offer inventive food. The Club House takes the tired multi-cuisine menu of coffee shops around the world, slaps it around a bit and presents an energetic choice — there’s a pasta counter, a ‘wokery’ and a dessert display. The attractive rooftop Mediterranean restaurant, Kefi, serves standards from Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Spain — mezze, moussaka, tagines, paella, shawarma, etc.
For me, the star of the show is Beyond Indus, a genuine fine-dining venue. With a menu developed from dishes of Punjabi-Sindhi origin, the restaurant hits a balance of comfort food (kababs, dal), traditional classics (taar qorma, kacche gosht ki biryani) and some disconcerting but pleasing innovations (a bellpepper-and-pineapple shorba). Adventurous guests can try the ‘Indiyaki’ — teppanyaki gone Indian. So, you begin by choosing between veg (banana flower, tofu and broccoli, etc.) and non-veg (chicken, prawn, squid, etc.); a gravy (tomato-onion, pepper, etc.); a flavouring (roast garlic, pickling spices, etc.) and a topping. Then the chefs somehow make it all come together in a main dish served with kaali dal and naan. Does it work? I ask F&B manager Natasha Verma. Always, she claims, every option works with every other. Obviously I didn’t hang around long enough to test the claim, but I did try the single malt pairing. And, well, that works too.
But there’s a limit to how much cleverness a person can digest. The last morning, as I surveyed my idli-dosa-sambar-chutney-filter coffee breakfast with relief and delight (all as good as the strictest mami’s), I uttered unheard words of thanks. The woolly-headed Madras lover departed a trendy Chennai hotel with nostalgia intact.
Where: 2 Club House Road, Chennai-2
Accommodation: Superior, Deluxe and Premium rooms; Executive, Deluxe and Presidential Suites
Tariff: Rs 13,000 (Superior room); Rs 15,000 (Deluxe room); Rs 17,000 (Premium room); Rs 18,000 (Executive suite); Rs 22,000 (Deluxe suite). Internet rates from Rs 6,500 for Superior room
Contact: 044-66313131, www.tajhotels.co