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Travel

Aloft, Ahmedabad

Aloft - Outer view
Aloft – Outer view

We were invited by Aloft to check out their new property at Ahmedabad, by staying as a guest for two days, along with more folks from the industry and media. Here’s what happened.

Day 1

0710 – Reached Terminal 1D at Delhi and was amazed by the crowds clustered around the entry gates. I was looking forward to a breakfast of bacon, eggs and butter slathered toast with hash browns at Fresc Co. Didn’t look like that was about to happen. Once inside, the crowds were even more threatening, with a collective conspiracy actively working against my dreams of a piggy breakfast followed by a leisurely cup of coffee accompanied by the morning paper. I love airports, and look forward to flights with breaks in between, trying to schedule loads of time between connecting flights, wandering around the premises. Yup, me and Tom Hank, both.

Aloft King
Aloft King

0735 – Checked in, security checked and tried hard to visualize gobbling rashers of bacon, gulping the coffee, paying the bill and leaving within ten minutes. Sighing, I accepted the inevitable and proceeded to KFC, coming away with a packed Zing Kong box (fried chicken, chicken burger, coke, fries) and made a beeline for the smoking room. A chap asked if he could bum a cigarette. I held out the pack, telling him anyone in the room would be happy to help him out; after all what right did he have to live any longer than the rest of us?

0830 – Ate cold, oily chicken, tough, leathery chicken burger and limp, soggy fries. This stuff wasn’t meant to be eaten cold. Tried hard to sleep. Tried.

1030 – Reached Aloft after being promptly picked up at the airport by a friendly Aloft driver who was kind enough to find me a matchbox. Shared the ride with Michael Swamy, a very quiet man with an unassuming manner and a lovely smile. We agreed it bored our knickers off when people insisted on talking only food around us. A chilled, damp towel later, as we signed pre-filled registration forms, I noticed a signature area labeled ‘Talent’. I asked the lady at the counter who was busy checking in another guest. To my surprise, the chap who was handing out chilled towels, who I can only assume was a very junior member of the staff, answered, “That’s for a staff member’s signature Sir. At Aloft, all staff members are designated as talent”. Suitably impressed, both by the young man’s quick response and the Aloft orientation programme, which I assume exists, I collected my room keys and  Starwood Preferred Guest card (loyalty card) and reached my second floor quarters.

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Travel

Style at a Steal: Aloft Hotel, Chennai

Contributed by Kuki Ravindran

[singlepic id=1727 w=80 h=92 float=left]Fresh. Funky. Fun: The first 3 words that sprung to mind as I walked through the glass doors and into the Lobby (aka Re:mix) of Aloft, Chennai! For a hotel located on the IT expressway and catering mostly to business travellers and long-stay visitors , Aloft-Chennai definitely breaks the mould of the typical no-frills business hotel. There were so many visual and sensory inputs that I stopped short for a second. The lay-out, the colours, the music, the smell (a signature scent created for Aloft ), the stack of brightly lit coloured-cubes, the Art on the walls, and was that a Pool table in the far corner?! There was so much to take in; less than a few minutes in and I liked it already!

As I waited to check-in at the circular Front-Office Desk (Aloha Desk in Aloft-ese), I noticed a sense of casual comfort setting in, and whether it was the un-conventional wraparound desk, the smiling faces of the staff or the mix of essential oils in the scented air, the resultant mood within a few minutes of arrival was one of ease, welcome and warmth – definitely what you want to be feeling at as soon as you walk into any hotel. The check-in process was short and painless and the staff friendly and efficient. The fact that the service-staff were dressed for comfort and style in open-neck T-shirts and pants was in keeping with the casual-chic feel of the hotel and was not only attractive, but practical. A refreshing change from the formal and elaborate (read hot and uncomfortable) uniforms that you often see hotel staff in, tropical climate notwithstanding.

As I waited to take my neon-pink-lit lift to the 3rd floor, I spotted an old but beautiful Lambretta scooter parked at the far-corner of the lifts. As I walked over to it curiously, I was informed that one of the Directors of Aloft is a vintage-scooter afficionado and so different levels of the hotel have different shining examples of two-wheeler technology from the yester-years. A Maroon Lambretta on the ground floor, a military-green James ML 125 cc beauty from 1945 on the 1st floor, and a Cream-coloured NSU Prima D Scooter from 1956 on the 3rd floor. All in a superb state of maintenance and kept in running-condition, but sadly no, not available to be taken for a spin.

A long walk down a stripey corridor (striped carpet, striped lights – standard décor common to all Aloft hotels worldwide) led me to my pool-facing room. Now here I was again pleasantly surprised! Very rarely, especially for hotel rooms, does reality turn out to be better than pictures on the Net! I was expecting a smaller, more compact, no-frills room and so, it was a pleasure to find a spacious, well-appointed, cheerful room with a King-sized platform bed, 2 pool-facing desks, a large 42″ flat-screen television and a well-stocked mini-bar (no alcohol but a variety of drinks and nibbles). A complimentary tea-tray complete with choice of signature teas and coffee was on offer, but what immediately caught my eye was an unusual device on the desk called Plug ‘n’ play. On closer inspection, this turned out to be a communications-port that allows one to hook-up any electronic gadget you might have (laptop, PDA, MP3 , cell-phone, you-name-it), to the large 42 inch flat-screen and navigate it from the comfort of your bed. Is this a big advantage for business people on the go? I don’t know, but certainly, having the option of working or playing your music/videos/movies from the comfort of that amazingly plush bed could only be good.

A quick peek through the In-room dining Menu revealed quite a few tempting options, but I decided to keep that for later and go check out what else the hotel had to offer. Heading down to lunch, I passed an interesting looking Grab ‘n’ go station called Re:fuel that was stocked with Fresh juices, milkshakes, sandwiches, assorted muffins, salads, snacks and tea/coffee/hot chocolate dispensers. This would be a boon to busy executives rushing to work, with no time to sit down to a proper meal. I felt plenty of thought and attention to detail had been put into that particular feature. For example, snacks and juices were dated and signed by the Chef who had prepared them, healthy options were aplenty, and brown bags were kept ready for one to just throw their choices in a bag and bill it at the Aloha Desk. The concept may not have caught on fully in India, but is very popular at Aloft hotels abroad, I was informed by the GM. I could easily see why.

Aloft, one of the Starwood group’s nine brands of Hotels and Resorts, decided to step away from its Select-Service avatar and do things a bit differently in India. Aloft-India has not one but three F & B Venues (4 counting Re:fuel) on offer. Not bad, considering a Select-Service hotel usually has no on-site restaurant! Dot.Yum is the 24 hour multi-cuisine Coffee Shop that offers buffets as well as a la carte for all its meals. Estia is the Mediterranean speciality restaurant and W xyz is the Bar offering Signature Cocktails and bar-snacks from around the world. The Dot.Yum lunch buffet is large and priced reasonably at Rs 650 plus tax pp, (dinner at Rs 700 plus tax pp.) The starters plentiful, off-beat, and delicious. The Nuts and Dukka Spice crusted Chicken Supreme is a dish I would make a special trip back to the hotel for- it was succulent, flavourful and paired with an excellent Tzatziki sauce. The Cheese Boreks, vegetable and cheese-stuffed spring-rolls, were crisp outside, gooey inside and served with a tomato salsa, an ideal way to whet the appetite. I was spoilt for choice when it came to the Main Course selections but decided Less is More and of the few dishes that I sampled, the Arabian tenderloin Shistawook on a skewer was outstanding – char-grilled to perfection, tender and flavoursome, the Moo Goo Gai Pan (Chicken w/sliced mushrooms) fairly tasty but not too authentic and the Paruppu Urandai Kozhambu (lentil dumplings in a tangy gravy) – simply delicious! If you are a dessert person (as I am!), you might find the Dessert section of the Buffet somewhat lacking. Apart from the mini plum-tart and omni-present Gulab Jamun, there wasn’t much else to justify its existence that afternoon.

One step up from Dot.yum and segregated partially by vertical wooden slats, is Estia, the signature Mediterranean Restaurant. With the sights, sounds and smells from the coffee-shop buffet spilling into it, Estia seemed more like an extension of the Coffee-shop than a stand-alone Mediterranean Restaurant, which is pity because the food I sampled from its Menu that evening was outstanding. The Sambusaks (phyllo cigars stuffed with Spinach and Nuts and served w/tomato jam) melted in the mouth and the Gambas al Ajillo – Prawns sautéed with garlic, were fresh and flavourful and paired with the perfect accompaniment – Chilli mayonnaise.

The Sambusaks were more likely Sigara as Sambusaks must be triangular in shape. Made with a variety of pastry and fillings, both can taste the same but must adhere to shape norms – triangular for Sambusaks and tubular for Sigara.

The main course, a Charmoula-crusted Sea Bass with Dijon mashed potatoes and grilled Vegetables was delicious. The fish–grilled and crisp outside, tender inside, went perfectly with the subtly flavoured, creamy mashed potatoes and grilled zucchini. But the surprise of the evening and the show-stopper IMHO, was the Vegetarian main course! I know….what a surprise! Innocuously named Moroccan Vegetable Couscous, the dish was presented with a flourish and looked and tasted so good, I am going to have to go back for it. The cous-cous was light and very flavourful, surrounded by a moat of delicious, Moroccan-spiced tomato gravy and topped with a tender, buttered stem of asparagus. A dish fit for a King, or Queen in this case. ;) Last up was one of two most famous desserts of the Mediterranean coast, Tiramisu. Layers of Coffee soaked sponge, interspersed with mascarpone enhanced whipped cream and dusted with cocoa, served chilled. It was a beautiful end to a fabulous meal. I would definitely go back to Estia for a good meal, and can only hope that future meals meet the high standards that were set that evening. A meal for 2 would set you back around Rs 1800/- approximately, which is quite reasonable.

Last but certainly not the least is W xyz – the Lobby Bar situated at Ground level with glass walls on two sides and glass windows on the third. All that glass gives one a slight goldfish-in-a-bowl feeling, but in a good way. There is a light and spacious feel to the bar, and being able to see the world go by as you sip on one of the bar’s excellent Signature cocktails is an added bonus. The Snack Menu is extensive, with options for a light bite (e.g. Herbed Fish Fingers/Chicken Satay) or a Big-bite (Chettinad Chicken Paratha Wrap/Beer-battered Fish & Chips). The staff are friendly and the Manager of the bar, an avid mixologist, loves a chance to display his skills. That evening, he mixed up an Aloft signature cocktail, The Year of the Dragon, a delicious combination of Peach Absolut vodka with fresh strawberries muddled with lemon juice, sugar syrup, a little strawberry crush and topped with club soda… to make the perfect cocktail for a hot summer night – refreshing and light.

Despite its F&B offerings, Aloft’s equal if not stronger focus, is on the tech-savvy and business traveller. This is evident from the plug ‘n’ play comm-port in the room, the free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel and also other such thoughtful offerings like the twin iPads near the main entrance – helpful if you want to make a quick search without pulling out your device, or perhaps print your ticket before you head out to the airport. Away from the main entrance is a quiet corner called In Touch, where full-size computers and office facilities await; a mini business-centre at your disposal. If you need to host a meeting, Tactic could be the perfect place to do it with state-of-the art AV equipment and an ability to host upto 45 people at a time. For larger corporate functions or parties there is Hub, almost 3000 square feet of space and an excellent kitchen to back it up. Whether on business or leisure, everyone needs some R&R and Aloft has a few options you would be hard-pressed to find even at a 5-star hotel. At Re:mix you have comfortable seats to catch up on your reading, a high-table and chairs with a choice of board games and… a pool table! If that’s too indoors-ey, head up to the first-floor where you could either lounge in the open-air backyard with a book, catch up with friends with some cool music playing in the back-ground, laze in one of the cabanas by the pool or take a dip in its cool, blue waters. Alternatively, head to The Spa where the Buddha-statue, fragrant air, dim-lighting and vedic-chant music will lull you into a peaceful trance in minutes. A short walk away from The Spa is Re:charge, the compact but fully-equipped gymnasium open 24 hours a day for in-house guests.

‘Style at a Steal’ they say? I agree. Aloft- OMR, Chennai gets two thumbs up for service, style, comfort, and great food.

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Travel

Aloft Hotel, Whitefield, Bangalore – The stay and play place

[singlepic id=1727 w=80 h=92 float=left]Aloft Hotel in Whitefield, Bangalore, is a business hotel that caters largely to longer-duration visitors who are in town for a training or project at one of the many tech parks that comprise the heart and soul of that area. Brightly colored, cheerful, engaging, and upbeat, Aloft goes out of its way to live up to the many taglines (such as the stay and play in the title of this piece, as well as its rest and refresh theme), found at its lobby and website. Hackneyed a sentiment as it may be, the impression I came away with after spending a weekend there last month, cannot be better described than: home away from home. A perhaps sought after ideology for those who are far away from home for work.

The design and color scheme of Aloft Hotel is vibrant and smile-inducing, as is the service and cheery staff. The front desk employees, wait staff and such were all in different colored t-shirts: White, Blue, Green and Black, to be precise. Each group had a color, and I was pleased to see polo neck tees and pants as the dress code, rather than gaudy uniforms/sarees or monochromatic suits as is the norm. The lobby has numerous vibrant elements, including the lit color blocks featuring Aloft slogans, interesting objets d’art, such as a vintage Italian scooter and a digital ticker tape running across one end of the lobby. The ticker is apparently an Aloft brand staple. Part of the lobby, named Re:mix, was a space filled with colorful chairs (plus a couple of rockers and recliners) and a pool table that received quite a bit of action (apart from my pathetic attempts, there were others who exhibited vastly superior skills). Even more fun, perched on a bar stool and tall table setup, I found Jenga, Pictionary, Scrabble, and other board games invitingly displayed for one’s entertainment.

I was greeted by a fruit platter, plate of cookies, and bottled water on getting to my room, alongside a set up for tea/coffee. Quoting my welcome letter, Aloft really does offer elements that are unique, modern, and fresh. Instead of a coffee shop, there’s an open 24 hours a day Grab ‘n’ go station, which has soft drinks, snacks, fruits, yogurts and ice creams that you can pick up and charge/pay for at the Front Desk. You can also make your own coffee creation or cuppa tea there. There is a charming bar named W xyz, with dim lighting, more interesting art on the walls, and a great starters/snacks/drinks menu. My companion and I spent a very enjoyable Saturday night there, tended to by the attentive staff while sipping on cocktails, one of which was a delightful vodka+lychee concoction that I tried and fell immediately in love with.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the superb food and dining experience at Aloft’s Mediterranean restaurant, Estia Dot.yum is their multi-cuisine restaurant that has both an extensive buffet (which we sampled on Friday night) and an array of a la carte options. I have to give special space and mention to the stupendous, alcohol-included, Sunday brunch – whatta spread! A live counter with momos and appam and stew was available, alongside salads (wine-poached pear salad, anyone?) breads, cold cuts (salmon, German smoked ham) and spreads (Hummus, Beetroot Tezakki). Soups, standard Chinese fare like noodles and sides, and Indian tandoori items as well as some south Indian specials made up the rest of the extensive offerings. And how can I fail to describe the dessert table which had Pannacotta, Kalakhand, Gulab Jamun, pastries, and ice creams?! I was told that they will soon add a grill section in the outdoor area, where BBQ meats and such will expand the food on offer. Apart from hotel guests, there were a few outside groups, including a little girl’s birthday celebrations. That definitely warmed my heart, as I am sure it did for those business guests away from their own families. The live music, provided by a lady with a keyboard and smoky voice (who also performs at W xyz), only added to the mood at our leisurely and luxurious brunch.

The pool area, named Splash, featured a good sized pool with a large Buddha head on one side, pool chairs scattered around the edges, and even four cabanas with comfy cushioned seating. This spot was particularly attractive  post sunset, when the other Buddha and Stupa (which made me think of Borobudur, Indonesia) lit from within, cast their shadows and the water gleamed and danced in the lights. My room overlooked the pool, and day or night, one found the area occupied. Guests came to relax and smoke, or spilled over from Dot.yum, which opens out onto Splash. On Sunday afternoon, the group of newly arrived guests from England (Accenture I was told) were either in the pool, or sunbathing. As I wandered around the hotel, I found there were different areas for lounging and getting a little quiet…comfy seating arrangements could be found by the two restaurants, near the elevator doors, and on the way to the fully equipped gym, with its cutesy name of Re-charge.

This review would obviously be incomplete without mention of the rooms and facilities. There’s a vast open air lawn space that seems perfect for weddings in particular, on one side of the hotel. Tactic is the indoor meeting space, with all the A/V and Wi-Fi bells and whistles. While we were there, a car rally took off and ended from the hotel entrance, and there were corporate gatherings at Tactic (up to 5000 people can be accommodated).  Aloft has one hundred and sixty six rooms and four suites, each with a pool or garden view and equipped with either a double or queen size bed, both larger than most of us are used to. That the beds were comfortable and the pillows fluffy, almost goes without saying.

The suites had sitting rooms and an extra little toilet/sink, and all the rooms had similar bathrooms (sink and dressing area outside). And here lies my one complaint with Aloft. The bathrooms were small and in particular, the shower space was cramped. I found that the shower drain was not the most user friendly and almost flooded the bathroom the first night I was there. I may be persnickety, but a well designed and good bathroom always make me happy (there wasn’t a single bathtub to be had, something I always look forward to in nice hotels). I liked the innovation of having dispensers for the body wash and shampoo (containing Bliss Spa products, a well known brand) rather than the small bottles of stuff that one generally finds. From an environmental and practical standpoint, that is a smart way to do it. The usual accoutrements (shaving kit, dental hygiene kit, etc) were also on hand, as was a white robe and bathroom slippers.

Would that I lived and worked in the Whitefield area, or indeed, that Bangalore traffic were not so horrendous and South Bangalore not so far from Whitefield! I know I will make the long trek back to Aloft again, to enjoy the food and hospitality. If I’d been closer, I am sure this repeat visit would be done, rather then being on my wishlist! I unequivocally recommend Aloft as a fun and feisty place to stay and would not restrict it to just business travelers. Any visitor is sure to be charmed and enjoy a night or three there. And the food will most certainly not disappoint!

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Mediterranean at Estia, Aloft Hotel, Whitefield, Bangalore

[singlepic id=1727 w=80 h=92 float=left]Staying at a business hotel in Whitefield (home to many of Bangalore’s tech parks), the last thing I expected to encounter was excellent Mediterranean food (Greek, Spanish, Italian, Lebanese to name the predominant dishes on the menu). Estia is named for the Greek Goddess of the Hearth, Hestia. Its a tranquil, elegantly decorated blue-and-white space with rustic charm (stone walls, wooden furniture that felt very farmhouse-like). Overlooking the swimming pool area, on the first floor of the property, the setting perfectly compliments the food and peaceful feeling the environment inspires in one. The menu features a range of starters, soups (some chilled, perfect for this summer heat), pizzas, mains and desserts (sumptuous!). As those who read my posts know, I’m a sucker for ambiance and presentation, alongside great tasting food. On all these counts, Estia was a resounding success. With a couple of minor exceptions, the dishes we ate at lunch were consistently tasty, beautifully plated, and satisfying in all respects.

On this particularly hot Bangalore summer Saturday, my companion and I opted for mojitos and left the mezze selections in the hands of Chef Manmohan Singh. The first platter to exit the kitchen was a mezze platter of Sundried Tomato & Rosemary Dip/Hummus/Tzatziki/ Muhammara (160), served with Pita Bread and Vegetable Crudités. The tomato and rosemary dip was the star of the platter, with lingering flavors and aromas both rich and yet, delicate. The hummus was perfectly adequate. Muhammara is something I’ve experienced in small doses before-mostly out of a jar. I have never warmed to this hot pepper dip, personally, but my friend enjoyed it. The Pita bread was freshly baked and just perfect. Our server also brought us a bread basket with a tempting selection of breadsticks and grilled garlic bread that was delightful! Seeing bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the table, I made the standard concoction of the two for the both of us and we got a-dipping.

The next entry on the table was Gambas Al Ajillo (450), described as “garlic prawns, pan seared, served with chilly mayo.” The prawns were succulent and juicy looking, but their taste did not quite match up to their looks. The dish was okay, a little too mildly seasoned for our palates. What followed though, knocked our socks off! Possibly the highlight of the meal, this was a starter of meatballs seasoned and cooked to perfection… Albondigas (275): Spanish meatballs served on a tomato and basil sauce. The rich taste and texture meant we made short work of it! I requested tasting portions for soup and salad, else the main courses would not get the attention they deserved. Chilled Yogurt and Bulgur Wheat Soup (125) a refreshing, mild, soup that hit just the right notes, and Horiatiki Salata (175), comprising tomatoes, kalamata olives, onions, peppers, cucumber, and feta cheese…a treat for me, a feta lover all the way.

Our main course consisted of Rosemary & Thyme Braised Lamb Shanks (450) for my friend, and Toga Wrapped Tenderloin (400), a filo pastry wrapped around tenderloin and stuffed with spinach, feta and herbs, done medium for moi. Both dishes were accompanied by a side of Polenta in a traditional (to my thinking) tomato sauce presentation. I LOVE polenta, and hearing me marvel at finding it on the menu, Chef Singh was kind enough to make that a part of the proceedings. To me, polenta is comfort food and will perhaps not be everyone’s cup of tea to have alongside ‘gourmet’ dishes like tenderloin and lamb. Both dishes were perfectly prepared, succulent and with fall off the bone meat in the case of the lamb.

Dessert consisted of two items: Baklava (175) served with an insanely good rose flavored ice cream that I, for one, could have gone on eating all day.  The baklava was as good as any I’ve eaten from eateries that claimed Turkish or Greek authenticity, or homemade versions. The other dessert was a Mango & Pistachio Panacotta (175)… balanced flavors and consistent. I noted, rather sadly, that we were the only occupants of the place for lunch; apparently the multi-cuisine restaurant next door gets the chuck of business.

When I mentioned my weekend plans to a colleague who asked if I was going to visit my parents (in Mysore), she joked I might as well be going home; Whitefield is a long way from South Bangalore, lets face it! All I can say is, I consider Estia worth the 1.5 hour drive, for its ambiance as well as cuisine. And while not a casual or cheap meal, the price tag is definitely not exorbitant for such fine dining. I hope others of you will also give it a try! I for one, was charmed, and will most certainly be back…

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