Indian hotels – Vivanta

By the pool

It’s always an experience staying in a good hotel in India. There is something missing in the customer service culture in Europe that runs through everything they do in Asia. I think it must be something associated with the insecurity and relative equality that we experience in Western Europe, and the UK in particular, that prevents us treating the customer as someone really special. The Vivanta in Bangalore is a delightful mix of chaos and friendliness all wrapped up in an Asian 5 star hotel. Never short of staff to help with whatever you want, the hotel has a family-owned feel about it and an intimacy that doesn’t overpower or intimidate. This hotel lacks the grandeur of the Leela or the Oberoi (I still think the Oberoi is the best hotel in Bangalore), but has nice touches in comparison, such as really good showers and a great bar.

Situated on the corner of MG Road right in the heart of the city, the chaotic organisation surrounding the entrance as you arrive delivers you gently into an oasis of quiet and calm. As there is no effective mass transit in Bangalore everything revolves around the car. This means it takes an hour to get anywhere and every hotel has a chaotic vehicle access problem. I say no effective mass transit, but in fact they have recently built a metro system that runs on a high level roadway through the centre of town, destroying the pleasant aspect of MG Road that used to be. You now stand outside on the street and the sky above you is dominated by concrete pylons and roadway. It’s unbelievable. Anyway, the hotel is a real heart-of-the-city place, complete with local colour, unlike the bland and formulaic places in the fast-expanding new office block campus districts.

Viajanta – a foodie evening out in East London

The Tortuga and I went to try out Viajanta in Bethnal Green a couple of weeks ago (Patriot Square, Bethnal Green, London E2 9NF – 020 7871 04610 – www.viajanta.co.uk). It’s quite easy to miss, at least we both arrived separately and missed it. But as long as you are on the same side of the road as the Museum of Childhood, walking away from Bethnal Green tube, then you’ll find it. It’s in the old town hall, which has been renovated to accommodate a hotel as well. There is a bar on the right where you can have a drink beforehand. I would advise against this, the alcohol bit at any rate, because if you are going for the wine pairing with the food courses you’ll struggle. People who know me know that I have quite a capacity for alcohol and I struggled after a pre-meal glass of champagne as well. It was the Tortuga’s birthday after all.

I should say that I’m not a fanatical foodie and don’t go in much for pretentious locations. But I do enjoy a good meal in the right company and I hate wasting money on rubbish. So I don’t have much to say about the ambience of the place, but I liked very much the way you can see the kitchen. The chairs are comfortable if a bit reclined for my liking, the place is scrupulously clean and you can have a decent conversation without straining to be heard. The Tortuga doesn’t have a volume control and only does quiet, claiming that I’m going deaf, so this is an important factor in ensuring an agreeable evening when we’re out.

The first thing you notice is the staff. From the person on the desk to the waiters and the chefs, they are just the right mix of unobtrusiveness and availability. There is nothing worse than being left to your own devices when you want something in a restaurant and that will never happen here. The approach is friendly, but not overdone, and they don’t intimidate. You don’t need to be a foodie to come here, because everything is explained and they take time to talk, if that’s what you want to do. A quiet confidence and enthusiasm exudes. This is important because you won’t recognize half of what you’re eating and having the short introduction to each course is essential. Sharing your experience with the staff is actually quite interesting too.

The menu is fixed, although I gather it changes every few months. My vote is to go for the wine pairing. There are six courses in all, minus the bits and pieces at the beginning, so it seems a bit silly to buy a bottle or two of something that almost definitely will not be fit for purpose. You are in this place for the food, and the wine needs to be a part of the experience. Each wine is a standard small glass, but it’s enough. The courses look small to start with, but as they arrive over a period of time, you get to experience everything slowly and I certainly couldn’t have managed anything more. Our waiter told us that he once tried the twelve course blow-out and that with the wine pairing was a serious challenge.

We started with mackerel with lettuce and black berries, paired with a Riesling (Orea “Saaris” Riesling Spätlese Feinherb 2009, Mosel). I had forgotten how much I like Spätlese and went straight out and bought a case of slightly ageing 2006. The way to do this is to take a modest glug of the wine, eat a forkful of food, taking in a bit of everything and then try the wine again. The contrast is fascinating and the same thing happens with each course. There’s obviously some clever thinking gone on behind all this. Here the gentle but slightly fruity Spätlese is transformed into a languorous, silky robe of melon and apple and marzipan that takes time over itself, somewhere in the back of your nose. It was quite extraordinary. Next came my personal favourite of the evening, butternut squash, milk skin and lardo with an I Clivi Brazan 2008 from Collio in Lombardy. A wine I had never heard of, of course, but which transformed with the food from a very pleasant if slightly minerally white to something gentle, ever so slightly musty and a little nutty, grassy and something else which I couldn’t quite place, brushed on the back of the throat. I wish now I had made some notes at the time.

Anyway, I think the point is made, as we continued through bread porridge with sweet corn, langoustine and girolles paired with a Bodegas Acustic, Acustic Blanc 2010, Montsant. Then cod loin with a stew of tripe, parsley and potatoes and a Duval Leroy 1999, Champagne. The cod was perfect. Until we arrived at my personal low point, and to be honest I was getting a bit full by now, Maldonado pork with cereals and garlic with a Chateau Musar 2001 from the Bekaa Valley. The wine was fine and unusual with that flinty Mediterranean edge to it, which I must admit I quite like, having once before been presented with a couple of bottles from a work colleague in the Lebanon. But I’m not a fan of cereals with meat and slow cooked and rare pork is where I get off the bus. The garlic was a little overpowering for me too, but a definite counterpoint to the previous course. Mine also had a slightly stringy and tough bit in it somewhere. But look, here I am indulging in the gastronomic equivalent of being a prat.

I am afraid I struggled with the beetroot and dark chocolate at the end as I’m not a great pudding fan. The Les Vignerons de Maury, Maury 1928 Solera Vin Doux Naturel, was just too much caramel and too heavy at this point. I much prefer something light and perhaps sparkling at the end of a meal. But we were there for the experience so this is just personal taste.

So after all that, what would I recommend? Without question this is one of the most interesting and not to be missed eating experiences I have had. The whole evening held together perfectly and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. So if you are looking for something rather special then this is it. Pricey? But of course and don’t expect to get much change out of three hundred for the two of you if you’re going for the wine pairing. But hell, you don’t have a birthday meal with your life’s soul mate every day of the year, do you? I recommend asking them to call for a taxi home though. Cambridge Heath Road is the pits.

Contact Anna (anna@viajante.co.uk) for a reservation and expect to book quite a long time in advance.

Things to hate about travel (1) – end of flight announcements

These are the annoying announcements that ‘welcome’ you back to your own country. As if the audacity of this wasn’t enough, some airlines will freely dispense ‘welcomes’ to somebody else’s country as well. Presumably on behalf of someone in the other country who has provided dispensation to do this. I wonder who hands out these dispensations? Do they get traded between airlines? Is there some kind of market in them? The ‘welcome’ is often delivered in breathlessly enthusiastic tones on behalf of the ‘entire’ crew. As if there was some confirmation needed to show that all of the crew, that means absolutely all of them, are joining together in the collective ‘welcome’. Does this mean that on some flights there are members of the ‘entire’ crew who do not ‘welcome’ you home? Are there some miserable killjoys out there, languishing in the shadows of the galley and the emergency exit rows, who refuse to join in the collective welcoming to someone else’s country? Somehow I cannot imagine these recluses being the young and fashionable ones. The Mikaels or the Carlottas. No, they’ll definitely be the Brians and the Janes of the crew training academy. And by the way, while I’m at it, I’m not an idiot. I do know that the UK is an hour behind the rest of Europe. Are there really people out there who if not reminded would actually commit the chronometric equivalent of driving on the wrong side of the road? Ah … I was getting ahead of myself again … there are Americans.

A thought about travel

Civilised travel depends on the good will of those around you. It’s a bit like growing up believing in the rule of law rather than the mob. It is also not natural to be herded into a confined space with tens or even hundreds of people who you don’t know and possibly wouldn’t choose to spend time with even if you did know them. Everything happens to you well inside the boundary of your personal space and this is not only unnatural but can be very unnerving.

I ended up on a packed flight at the end of last week which just about finished me. The person sitting next to me was, to be frank, too large to be traveling in a standard seat. But let’s assume that can’t always be helped. Although eating a bit less might. The real problem was the constant scratching and flicking the hair and the excavation of the nose that was going on. Now, if that wasn’t bad enough, the person across the aisle in the row in front, was doing the same thing. The nose bit, that is. So one way or the other, wherever you looked you were done for. So I just closed my eyes and tried to recall long forgotten meditation techniques to blot out my surroundings. The problem was that I didn’t have a candle to focus on. But I did manage eventually to take myself to a warm terrace in Italy.

I don’t know how others feel about this habit, the nose bit again, but my immediate reaction is to be sick. A while ago I sat opposite a French man on the Eurostar who did the same thing all the way from Paris to London. No particular association with being French, it’s just that he was. This is why I no longer book the communal table seats where you face someone unless I know the people I am traveling with. One day I think I am going to lean over and ask whether anyone would mind if I was to throw up. Perhaps that way they’ll be embarrassed into thinking about their behaviour in public the next time.

Of course, when you finally walk off the flight without acknowledging the forced “have a nice evening, thank you for flying with us”, they probably don’t understand that you’re not really being rude, you’ve just had enough. Again.

Antique glass

Antique Glass
David Glick - Antique Glass

Quite unrelated to travel, but just a word about a great place I discovered recently. I went looking for a present for two priests who got married. It was quite a difficult present to choose and I had in my mind something along the lines of an old decanter. Something that would be useful in the dining room of their Victorian vicarage today and perhaps in years to come could be used to dispense a restorative sherry for alarmed members of the congregation. Anyway, it took me a couple of months on and off in various likely areas in London. Finally I found this place run by a fascinating man called David Glick (Antique Glass – 300 Westbourne Grove, London W11 – 07850 615867). In an old dairy just off Portobello Road, David has the most amazing collection of old glass. Decanters, jugs, rummers and other glasses – you name it and he’s got it. There’s no website, you just have to turn up on a Saturday morning between eight and twelve, as he doesn’t have a license to trade during the week and mainly supplies the trade. Give him an idea of what you want and he’ll work out the rest.  He’s also a mine of information about other antique dealers and where to get unusual and interesting items.

It’s just such a pity that so many wonderful shops are disappearing from London. Many are going on to the Internet or moving a long way out of town. The Cotsworlds seems a favoured destination. A lot are driven out by the increasing rates burden. Another place for interesting old glass, Jeanette Hayhurst of Kensington Church Street, has moved out of town after 25 years for this reason. All the old Kings Road antiques dealers have gone. We must all take some of the blame for this because many of us have just stopped taking the time to give them our business. It’s also the changing demographic of Londoners, where the city centre is becoming more the preserve of younger, transient residents. Nor should we underestimate the impact of draconian local authority parking regulations which have just about destroyed the passing trade for many small retailers.

This has made me think of another category for this blog. I’ve started a new section on interesting places where you also get great service. David’s business is the first entry.

A good flight

I must not forget to mention that last Friday, Charlotte the BA Cabin Service Director on the last BA flight back to LHR from Amsterdam (I didn’t get her surname), restored my flagging faith in BA’s sadly lacking customer service ethic. Cheerful, friendly and time to talk. They need to put her into the training department for a while so she can teach some of the rest of them how it should be done. I know that the cabin crew are there for a very good reason other than serving drinks and food, but still it makes such a difference when someone knows how to make it all work.

Does anyone know if there’s a site where you can say good things about BA?

A good start

I have just stayed in an excellent hotel in Amsterdam. The Okura (www.okura.nl) to the south of the centre. The service philosophy shines through from the moment you check-in to the thoughtful touches in the rooms. The last time I stayed here I actually woke up to a view over a city farm and watched pigs, goats and geese as they roused themselves in the morning sun. Like most things Japanese, it’s not cheap and you will need to persuade a sympathetic local PA to find a good rate unless you work for a company who doesn’t mind what you spend.

Life from the customer's view