For years, on periodic visits to Kolkata, while hurtling down the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, one had seen an improbable building coming up next to the ITC Sonar. Reaching out to the sky, it was seemingly preparing to overshadow its neighbour, and sibling. But Atul Bhalla, ITC Hotels’ main man in the east, is having none of that. Together, the much-loved Sonar and new-kid-on-the-block Royal Bengal will offer 693 rooms, suites and serviced apartments, an inventory tour de force. With banqueting venues and meeting options totalling 22 venues and 9,290 sq m of space between the two hotels, ITC is somewhat ahead of the competition.
There are no two ways about it: the ITC Royal Bengal is monumental. Yet, it feels remarkably intimate on the inside. The interiors are world class. This is a hotel which would have been right at home in Miami or Milan, New York or Nice. It also confirms what I have long believed about ITC Hotels. It is a chain run by hospitality nerds, single-minded in their obsession to create the best hotels possible. In the Royal Bengal, they have built a timeless hotel, which will be held up as the gold standard for years to come. And, let’s not forget, it’s all guilt-free ‘responsible luxury’.
My ITC One room, contemporary classical in its approach to décor, was dripping with cutting-edge tech and mod cons, but they’d done it so well the Luddite in me wasn’t overwhelmed at all. The controls were all on an iPad. Of course, among the preset lighting options ranging from ‘good night’ to ‘cinema’ and ‘dining’, they had also included ‘responsible luxury’. The living area and bed were deftly separated and the bathroom was sinfully lavish. I had a breathtaking view of the East Kolkata Wetlands as a personal butler to boot.
Across the hotel, the region is reflected in the design inspiration. From the colonial façade to the return of the grand lobby staircase to the exquisite kantha wall displays. There have been subtle innovations on other fronts too. The one that stood out for me was the dedicated, and rather luxurious, lounge for in-house guests, which also incorporates a business centre, which, in tune with the times, is much smaller than you would have traditoinally expected. There are all of 82 serviced apartments, as ITC prepares to tap into this robust new niche. I hope I’ll be forgiven for mistaking one of them as the Presidential Suite!
As always with ITC Hotels, it’s not long before the conversation veers to food. Seems the kitchen elves have been hard at work since I last dined at an ITC property. Honestly, I don’t think there is a five-star hotel chain in India that can match them any more. My meals at the ITC Royal Bengal were so extraordinary and engrossing that—hold your breath—I forgot to document them for my Instagram account.
The busiest venue was the Grand Market Pavilion, the three-meal buffet restaurant, its design inspired by Kolkata’s New Market. The marketplace vibe was sustained with scattered food stations offering an extensive range of Indian and international delicacies. What everyone is already talking about is the uber-popular Northeast spread on the buffet, possibly a first in a five-star setting.
It looks like the success of Royal Vega, ITC’s luxury vegetarian proposition, will be replicated in Kolkata as well. It won’t make a hole in your wallet either. Chef Varun Mohan, who has relocated here for the launch, brings a rare culinary passion to the vegetarian thali, customising it for Kolkata by incorporating dishes from the vegetarian Sheherwali community of the region. The emphasis here is very much on eating fresh, seasonal produce, in complete harmony with nature.
It was a pure pleasure to dine under the personal care of Chef Vittorio Greco, at Ottimo, the Italian kitchen. The menu features wood fired pizzas, elaborate antipasti and a variety of artisanal pastas and cheeses coupled with select premium beverages.
A dish would be brought, and El Greco would follow, sometimes with a regional Italian olive oil, sometimes with a tin of black garlic for closer inspection, sometimes with white spring truffles that he would shred over the dish with a generosity one usually reserves for a block of processed cheese. We thoughtlessly dismiss Italian cuisine as simple or overly rustic. Let Ottimo change your mind about that, not least with the inspired plating. And don’t even get me started on the divine, and mysterious, panna cotta. I’m not saying any more. You just have to come and try it for yourself.
You can’t open a hotel in Kolkata and not serve Darjeeling tea. The stylish Darjeeling Lounge, the cheeriest of the F&B venues here, serves that superlative tea and many more. There’s so much fuss and ceremony over the tea service, it’ll definitely make your afternoon special.
The Brass Room, a jazz bar with live gigs, is a tribute to Kolkata’s time-honoured passion for music. The interiors are stylish and the tapas menu glocal. Dishes inspired by local produce include Bandel cheese mousse, black rice arancini, and perilla and sweet potato cutlets. There’s a sous vide panch phoran pork to pique your curiosity as well as Naga honey glazed wings.
I thought this hotel was the high point of Bengal’s hotel renaissance. But it’s probably a culinary revolution in disguise.
If you fly into Kolkata of an evening, both the JW Marriott and the ITC Royal Bengal swing into view at about the same time on the Bypass. By day, although their façades embrace different aesthetics, both look fairly impressive. By night, one is dark and subdued; the other all lit up and flaunting its curves and edges. No prizes for guessing which one steals the show.