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.