Consider food, and sleep. Babies have got the right idea about eating and sleeping; Spaniards, too. To observe my dad for a few hours around the taking of Sunday lunch is to consider all human life in microcosm: eat, sleep, wake, go again. They’re natural bedfellows, pun very much intended. Both are biological necessities. Both can be made or broken by the introduction of another person; both are rarely as fun as you think they’ll be once the headcount gets above four. Both are surrounded by a near-impenetrable fug of pseudoscience, elements of which can be corralled in the services of the latest fad. Both can be used as signals for a certain lifestyle: you know the banker who gets three hours a night and facepalms three meals al desko just as well as you know the clean eater who eschews all blue light after 8PM and rises with the sun. You can spend dizzying amounts of money on both – whole microeconomies have sprung up encouraging millennials to part with their scarcely-earned Bitcoin on spuriously hi-tech #hacks to the status quo – yet both remain maddeningly resistant to any attempt to draw a correlation between quality and cost. There is a promise of eight hours’ sleep for every price point under the moon, but sometimes the best nights of your life will be at places – in beds– that cost next to nothing.
All of which is to say that hotel restaurants should be better. In their unique, liminal position somewhere between the domain of food and the domain of sleep, hotel restaurants should be the best, in fact: temples to the perfectibility of our greatest, most unnecessary indulgences.But they’re not. Put a chef in a hotel restaurant and watch them disappear; even big names that elsewhere stand on top of the world – the Arzaks; Eneko Atxa; Simon bloody Rogan – are suddenly, mysteriously stripped of their vital essence, turning out rote product that meekly whispers Is this good enough? rather than roaring ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED? Hotel restaurants are where atmosphere chokes down its last meal before calling a lonely cab to Dignitas; hotel restaurants exist purely to capture the perennially vulnerable out-of-town hick lacking the imagination to break shelter; hotel restaurants are what happen when you dangle a stupid amount of money in front of someone who has been so ground down by the job they’ve lost the integrity to say no.
It’s not always the food that’s the problem – I’d recommend the spanking high-end take on Southern Indian cuisine at Quilon without hesitation if it were served somewhere that didn’t resemble the Priority Pass lounge at an unloved airport in Uttar Pradesh. It’s not always the room, either: Sea Containers at the Mondrian is fairly winning; I’m even prepared to admit feeling an admiration of sorts for the Beckettian blasted heath vibes of Fera at Claridges. It’s just this bizarre reverse alchemy that happens, the decomposition of what should be a satisfying whole into constituent parts that mysteriously then no longer add up at all.
The best ones are those with the confidence to act like destinations in their own right; the worst are the ones that assume by screaming I AM A DESTINATION RESTAURANT loud enough they can make it so. And then the desperate backsliding as the punters fail to materialise through the doorway tarted up as part of the multimillion-pound refurb, the blunting of the sharper edges of the menu’s concept, the creeping universality of more approachable fare – until the menu you receive reads like a suicide note for creative ambition, the obligatory crowd-pleasers given pathetic proprietary modifiers to keep up the pretence that this is a kitchen run by a chef and not by a hotel’s balance sheet.
Little wonder the upper echelons of the World’s 50 Best are rarely troubled by hotel restaurants; little wonder, too, that hotel restaurants are so beloved by Michelin, which has showered them with the sort of star count usually reserved for a Gordon Ramsay tirade in transcript. For a guide whose P&L is predicated on recommending places to stay and places to eat, hotel restaurants are already onto a winner; factor in the risk-averse, shoutily high-end signalling in which hotel restaurants need to indulge to justify fleecing the sort of person who travels to London but doesn’t leave their accommodation to eat and they become a total lock. Hotel restaurants are Michelin crack: goppingly expensive, achingly soulless, scrupulously clean and well-drilled, the food a steady-handed procession of techniques and ingredients ripe for an approving box-tick.Worth a special journey!
We ate in a lot of hotel restaurants in India, largely out of necessity (there aren’t a whole bunch of alternatives in rural Rajhasthan) but also, admittedly, quietly, somewhat out of pusillanimity. The tropes became tropes quickly: a lot of sitars, a lot of marble, service that was like being smothered in silk. Ambiguously fine food: food both extravagant and merely adequate. An idiosyncratically Indian hotel restaurant experience, but a hotel restaurant experience all the same.
But here is Indian Accent, in New Delhi. It is a genuine oddity, in that the powers that be at San Pellegrino have deemed it worthy of consideration, ranking it in 2016 as number 9 in Asia, number one in India, number 87 in the world (no, that doesn’t add up, and it’s honestly not my fault). It lives in The Manor, which the photos suggest is quite fancy but is, in reality, a wee bit Alan Partridge TravelTavern, with some dodgy 70s riffing on a gold / brown / orange palette and slightly IKEA furniture. The bar does not suggest a culinary odyssey awaits; the drinks, when they arrive after sliiiightly too long, do not fill you with confidence; the menu… well, now, let’s just hold on a second.
The thing missing from so many hotel restaurants is a sense of fun. Not A Sense of Fun, something you can inject into a restaurant through a grim process of artificial insemination, but something organic, a thing impossible to catch in a bottle because it is capable of taking so many different guises: the screamingly camp Disneyland ornamentation of the Ritz backed up with food and service that is also a little de trop; the bonkers touches dotted around Heston’s Dinner (and Heston’s dinner);the mind-bogglingly unfamiliar list of local Thai dishes at nahm in Bangkok, a menu-manifesto that commands you to submit – ultimately, ecstatically – to an alien logic not your own. It is a beacon of hope to the diner, apromising whisper on the wind that not everything about this place has been pared down to the purely necessary; a sign that – whatever the setting – things aren’t going to be too grindingly predictable. And when a menu ranges – as Indian Accent’s does – from a burrata papdi chaat to a pulled pork phulka taco to tandoori bacon prawns with wasabi malai, you do at least pause. Could this be a rare sighting – as scarce as those tigers you paid a lot of money not to see in Ranthambhore – of fun in the wild?
Fuck yeah. The food is a riot. They start you off with a blue cheese naan smaller than the palm of your hand which is trashy, moreish fun; it is followed by a lightly masala-ed cauliflower soup that is perfect, liquefied aloo gobi. Like a few of the more fusion-y elements the burrata isn’t an especially eloquent substitute for the traditional ingredient it replaces but it’s deeply pleasurable all the same. The taco is tiny, and a delight; the prawn is stonking. It’s not flawless: dishes grow in size and diminish in innovation and lightness of touch as we go; the ensemble is probably lacking in the refinement that would give a Michelin inspector a full three-star hard-on; calling it the best restaurant in India is a nonsense. But after a fortnight of more traditional fare it is a tonic just as welcome as the traditional gin-and taken as the sun set on the Empire.
And yet. The Manor exerts its malign, enervating influence, becomes an unwelcome participant in our dinner – almost a presence at our table; a business traveller, 21st century Overlook Hotel (The Microsoft Outlook Hotel?) in a Bollywood remake of The Shining. If it’s not the impassive staff it’s the other guests, a miscellany of wrinklies getting their Best Exotic Marigold on and clueless Americans dressed appropriatively in full shalwar kameez. If it’s not the other guests it’s the wait between courses, which starts out indiscernible and, as the evening continues, drags itself out longer and longer, until what once was a pleasant interstitial, fertile ground for discussion, becomes a pause pregnant with tension and irritation and boredom – not with each other, not with the food, just with this shit, the very hotel-restaurantness that has now infected our night, has proved impossible to escape even on the other side of the world. It finishes in true hotel restaurant style with a series of agonising delays between the pudding and the joyless petits-fours, between the petits-fours and ourtaxi, between our taxi and our bed.
We do not sleep well.