An Epicurean Journey in India
The ITC hotels in Starwood’s Luxury Collection are home to some of India’s finest dining establishments. Dr Elaine Kim heads to Bengaluru and Chennai on a culinary adventure to explore and eat, eat and eat.
Stepping out of Bengaluru's airport, my first thoughts were "what lovely cool weather" and "what fresh air". It was my very first visit to India and I had expected neither. "It's an assault to all senses," people would say about India. From the descriptions and depictions, I imagined powerful smells, dusty, noisy roads with cows crisscrossing the streets causing hopeless jams.
The India that I arrived in bore only slight resemblance to what I had imagined. In Bengaluru, streets were busy, and people used their car horns liberally, but I didn't see one cow holding up traffic. On the surface it was modern, clean enough for a developing country, and once you drove through the tall, Gurkha-guarded gates of the ITC Gardenia, the atmosphere was one of refined elegance. The 5-star ITC hotels across India are part of Starwood Hotels' Luxury Collection. For our trip, they had planned an Epicurean Journey in the ITC hotels of Bengaluru to Chennai, taking us from meal to decadent meal in the gourmet establishments across the group.
In Bengaluru the ITC Gardenia takes inspiration from the historic gardens of Bangalore. We are greeted at the entrance by a bevy of sari-clad hosts who adorn us with jasmine garlands and serve us cold glasses of gingered sarsaparilla, and usher us across a breezy, sprawling, marble fountain courtyard where we are struck by the vertical wall gardens and green roofs spilling over the pavilions. Here ITC lives up to its tagline "responsible luxury". The hotel is clearly luxurious but most guests do not realise ITC Gardenia is as green in practice as it is in appearance, being the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum-rated hotel in India, powered entirely by renewable energy from a purpose-built wind farm. There is another ITC in Bengaluru, the ITC Windsor which occupies a Georgian manner filled with old world charm, full of soaring colonnades and crystal chandeliers, and rainshowers of rose petals when you arrive at their grand marble lobby, evoking the colonial splendor of the Raj era.
Kebabs and Kurries (K&K) at ITC Gardenia served what many in our party declared as the best biryani they had ever tasted. At Dakshin in ITC Windsor we were treated to a South Indian feast of over 20 curries and daals, chutneys and stews, presented on banana leaves and bronze platters. As a respite from the heavy, lavish spreads, our hosts thoughtfully curated a healthy breakfast for us at the beautiful Lotus Pavilion at ITC Gardenia. It was surprisingly delicious, with delightful offerings like flax seed dosa accompanied by the famous local railway chutney and multigrain idli with coconut and coriander.
Our two days in Bengaluru were spent in the decadent embrace of food, going from breakfast to lunch to high tea to dinner, with all of us convinced after each meal that we would simply not be able to swallow another bite, yet unable to resist when the next plate was put before us.
In between the sumptuous meals, there was some opportunity to work off the calories piled on - a ride through historic Cubbon Park on a 6-seater Surrey cycle, a visit to the Bull Temple fortuitously coinciding with the annual Peanut Festival, each excursion giving us a colourful glimpse of what the destination has to offer.
A short flight on a small jet took us to the second leg of our epicurean journey. At the Chennai airport, a fleet of sleek black Lexus limousines were waiting to take us to the ITC Grand Chola. This ambitious development arrived on Chennai's cityscape in 2012, earning its place as the largest stand-alone hotel in India.
Driving into the sprawling compound is akin to entering a gated city, its architecture reminiscent of an ancient civilization. In fact, the design of ITC Grand Chola was based on South Indian temple architecture with 4 wings and entrances, and the masonry is inspired by the Brihadeeshwara temple in Tanjore, each of the 462 pillars on-site intricately hand-carved by 4000 artisans from Mamallapuram. Within the compound you will find a ballroom that accommodates five thousand, 600 (including a breathtaking, palatial Rajaraja Chola presidential suite) modern, luxurious rooms equipped with iPad-controlled technology and accompanied by personal butlers, and 10 excellent restaurants.
The cuisine here is a highlight. At Peshawri we feasted on authentic North Indian cuisine on communal benches, where we were given aprons and strongly encouraged to "taste with our fingers" the steady flow of dishes: succulent meats fresh from the tandoor.
We met Chef Vikramjit Roy, an acclaimed young chef who has been commissioned by ITC to usher in a breath of fresh air to the group's dining palette with the development of Pan-Asian, a restaurant concept featuring contemporary-Oriental cuisine. He hosted us to dinner at Grand Chola's Pan Asian restaurant one evening - a degustation of exquisite dishes incorporating Asian flavours in a modern, sometimes molecular cuisine.
Also in residence during our stay was ITC's corporate executive chef Manjit Gill, one of India's most celebrated culinary maestros, and the man behind 2 restaurants widely considered as India's best: Bukhara and Dum Pukht.
As in Bengaluru, the concierge at ITC Grand Chola tailor-made excursions for us in between meals to give us a taste of Chennai. Perhaps the most intimate look at the city was on a walking trail in Mylapore, where we were invited into the home of a local Hindu priest, giving us an honest glimpse into the everyday life, culture and customs of the people of Chennai.
The itinerary had saved the best for last - on the final day I retreated to Kaya Kalp, a 30,000 sq ft sanctuary of softly uplit white marble, for an Ayurvedic spa retreat. Even as a medical doctor in Western medicine, I'm a firm believer in the five-thousand-year-long wisdom and traditions of Ayurvedic medicine, so I left Dr Shreenarayanan's consultation room earnestly determined to heed his dietary and lifestyle advice.
With that, I left India a little fuller in the stomach, a little heavier in weight, but a little lighter in spirit.
For more information about the ITC Hotels, restaurants and our epicurean journey itinerary, please contact The Luxury Collection at here.
Author’s Bio: Dr Elaine Kim is a doctor in palliative care, and looks after terminally-ill patients in their homes with HCA Hospice Care. Outside of medical work, she is a partner at designer boutiques Trinity Bridal (www.trinitybridal.com.hk) in Hong Kong and Trinity Gallery (www.trinitygallery.com.sg) in Singapore, and is also the co-founder of CRIB (www.crib.com.sg), a new social enterprise that empowers women to become successful entrepreneurs. Travelling often for work, leisure and volunteer missions, she writes about her trips, regularly contributing tatler_tatler_stories to various publications. Elaine is a mother of 2 young boys, Kyan and Luke, and is married to venture- capitalist John Kim. You can follow her on her travels via Instagram @elaine_kim.