Dec 1, 2008

Lifestyle Columnist - Vir Sanghvi's three days in Atlantis (G.Read)

Four internationally renowned chefs - Nobu, Giorgio Locatelli, Santi Santamaria and Michel Rostang - opened restaurants at Dubai’s newest luxury resort. Will the food approach the levels it reaches at their principal restaurants?

On the Emirates flight to Dubai, a city that many Indians know well but which I hardly know at all. Somehow, I’ve never had a reason to go there and oddly enough, nor have I felt anything more than marginal curiosity about it.

But this time is different. I’m going for the opening of Atlantis, the much-hyped 1500-room hotel built by South African entrepreneur Sol Kerzner. Atlantis has sold itself to the media as a city resort – which it may well be – and Sol (who owns One and Only Hotels among other things) is an interesting guy. But that’s not why I’m going.

I’m more interested in the chefs. A few years ago, the big Las Vegas hotels rewrote the rules for that town. Vegas was originally a gamblers’ paradise, full of showgirls, card-tables and slot-machines. Then it became a middle-market family destination. But now it has gone upmarket with the opening of many expensive hotels and restaurants run by the world’s best-known chefs. Part of its new success as a destination is entirely attributable to the restaurants that have been opened by such noted chefs as Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and Nobu Matsuhisa.

Sol started out as a gambling billionaire but now he’s seen the writing on the wall. Atlantis is clearly inspired by Vegas. It’s part luxury hotel, part theme park and above all, a gourmet destination. It has restaurants run by Nobu, Giorgio Locatelli, Santi Santamaria and Michel Rostang. Giorgio has never run anything outside the UK, Santi has stuck to Europe, Michel is a quintessentially French chef (with seven restaurants in France) and Nobu is a stranger to West Asia.

So how will the chefs cope? Will they trade on their names and brands? Will the food approach the levels it reaches at their principal restaurants?

I arrive at Atlantis in the afternoon and am pleasantly surprised to be greeted by name at reception. A great guest recognition system? Perhaps. But the two girls who check me in both worked in Reception at Delhi’s Taj Palace and so, know Indian guests well. This pattern will recur throughout my stay: everywhere you go in Atlantis, there are Indian members of staff who know Indian guests.

At 7.30 pm I go to Ossiano, Santi Santamaria’s restaurant, to have a drink with Alan Leibman, Atlantis’s Managing Director and Ashley McBain, the chic and dazzlingly bright director of PR. Naturally, they offer us canapés to go with the cava but I ask the manager if perhaps he can give us tasting portions of some of the dishes on the main menu.

And so a procession of quite astonishing tapas begins. Much of it involves caviar (Santi is fond of the stuff) including an astonishing seafood tartare topped with Sevruga. There is mashed potato with more caviar and lots of seafood. But it is Santi’s signature dish that beats all the luxury ingredients. This is a light, almost ethereal ravioli of brown onion and porcini mushroom topped with more porcini. Anybody can make caviar taste good. It takes genius to cook onions and mushrooms so that they overshadow the caviar.

Alan tells me that Atlantis hopes to attract Indian guests. Though room rates are high ($400 plus), the hotel may offer cheaper packages. And certainly, the opportunity to eat food of this calibre should prove to be an attraction.

Ashley and I are due to have dinner at Nobu. We wonder if we have any room for more food after the kilos of caviar that we have consumed. But one look at the bustling, energy-filled room that is the Dubai Nobu and we know that we will be okay.

Ashley orders. We start with the Toro Tartare and work ourselves through the menu when Nobu Matsuhisa, who Ashley knows reasonably well, appears at our table and joins us.

Nobu is, without a doubt, the best-known Asian chef in the world. He is also the only one to have created an entirely new cuisine, marrying the flavours of his native Japan with those of Peru and the Mediterranean. His empire now spans 24 restaurants and his partner is Robert de Niro (who is also flying in tonight).

For all that, he is astonishingly humble, likeable and down-to-earth. He makes us try the newest dish he has created (with Icelandic cod) and talks about the challenges of opening in so many different countries.

I ask him about the many knock-offs of his restaurants: every so-called modern Japanese restaurant is essentially a Nobu clone. He says he doesn’t mind. Once he puts his dishes out there, he expects them to be copied. It might even be a compliment, he laughs.

I ask him about Sumosan, a Russian restaurant chain that has found success re-interpreting the Nobu menu for oligarchs and their young girlfriends. Nobu says that when he went to the Moscow Sumosan he was startled to find that one section of the menu was described as ‘Nobu dishes’. They can steal my food, he says. But not my name.

Even those Indians who do not travel widely know Nobu’s food because of Wasabi, the restaurant started by Masaharu Morimoto who used to be Executive Chef at the New York Nobu.

Nobu knows the Wasabi restaurants. In fact, he knows India. He’s been here scouting for locations. He has good words for Morimoto but says that when he asked him about the Indian market, Morimoto responded: “Mr Nobu, 80 per cent of the dishes at my restaurants in India are from your menu.”

This is true. But it’s nice to know that Morimoto admits it.

At 11 am, Ashley takes me to meet Mark Patten, Atlantis’s VP, Culinary. He would be called the Executive Chef elsewhere but Atlantis is so huge that Mark has three executive chefs working under him.

Executive Chefs (or VPs for that matter) at hotels of this size tend to be kitchen executives rather than real chefs. But Mark is an exception. He is an Australian with extensive global experience, having worked with Anoushka Hempel at the opening of The Hempel in London and spent many years in East Asia with the Shangri-La chain. Consequently, he is as passionate about Asian food as he is knowledgeable about European. He can discuss Michel Rostang’s cuisine while going into raptures about a little restaurant in Chiang Mai that barbecues its meat.

I ask Mark how the collaborations with chefs work. Do the chefs run their own restaurants? Who do the outlet chefs report to? The answer seems to be that they rely on collaboration. Each celebrity chef sends his own chefs who report to both, Mark’s own hierarchy and their original bosses. It is a model that’s worked in Vegas so it should work here.

The night before, Nobu and I had discussed the current fad for all things Wagyu. Nobu took the line that much of this was simply a waste of Wagyu beef.

I ask Mark about it. He reveals that he’s found an innovative solution. A year ago he identified a breeder in Australia who bred his own herd of Wagyu cows. Mark committed to him that Atlantis would buy a certain number of cows each month if they were bred specially for the resort. So now, all the beef at Atlantis is Wagyu – they use no other kind. But because Mark agrees that many of the European-style dishes that use beef do not need Wagyu, he refuses to call it Wagyu – he just calls it Atlantis beef.

He challenges me to try a steak of Atlantis beef next to one of the most expensive US prime cuts and to be able to say which one is which. I agree. I will be back tomorrow.

Lunch is with Ashley at Ronda Locatelli, run by Giorgio Locatelli, London’s hottest Italian chef. We both resolve to eat simply but no sooner are we confronted with the menu than our self-control cracks. We start with the restaurant’s signature pizza made with a crust that’s light and crisp. Then, we try three kinds of pasta and an earthy porcini risotto. Ashley insists, with each mouthful, that the food “is very light.” Well maybe it is, but we are certainly eating a lot of it.

As a sidelight, one of the supervisors in the restaurant has come here from Bombay. He served at Prato at the Four Seasons and is just one of many of the Indians I seem to remember from back home. The previous evening I had bumped into Gaurav Dhariwal who was a butler at the Taj Palace in Delhi. The Taj Palace has butlers for 80 of its rooms but Atlantis only offers butler services to suite guests. Nevertheless I was surprised when I returned to my room at night to find that somebody had put Darjeeling tea and a saucer full of lemon slices by my kettle. Then, the penny dropped. It was Gaurav who remembered from the Palace that I liked my tea with lemon. Though he was not my butler, he clearly took the trouble to see that I had what I need.

This afternoon, Gaurav appears at my door and offers to show me some of Atlantis’s suites. The Presidential suite is truly impressive topped only, among the suites I have seen, by the Presidential Suite at the Taj Palace, Gaurav’s old hotel. The Royal Suites are nice enough but the stars of the hotel are the Poseidon suites.

One of Atlantis’s conceits is that it is home to 250 species of marine life or 65,000 live fish. At its centre is the Ambassador lagoon, an 11 million litre marine habitat supposedly modelled on the lost city of Atlantis (that’s the theme park element to the hotel) where thousands of fish (including a controversial whale shark) swim around.

The Poseidon suites have huge plate glass windows that show you the lagoon as the fish swim by. It has the sense of being underwater without any of the claustrophobia.

At 9.30 in the morning I meet Toby Burnham at the French Brasserie for a French breakfast (coffee and croissant though we both pass on the stinky cigarette that is the French answer to bacon and eggs).

Toby works with Mathew Freud, a friend of Sol Kerzner’s (and Rupert Murdoch’s son-in-law incidentally) who runs one of the UK’s most successful PR companies. Freud Communications are handling the PR for the launch of the hotel and with 250 journos and TV crews in-house the atmosphere is tense and charged. Still, Toby seems remarkably laidback, recalls his last visit to India with Ken Livingstone (when Ken was Mayor of London) and is excited that Shah Rukh Khan is flying in for the opening tomorrow morning.

Michel Rostang appears when we are halfway through our coffees and says that he approves of our preference for a French style of breakfast. I ask Rostang about the difference between a bistro and a brasserie. I know that both are informal restaurants but have never been clear about the exact distinction.

Rostang says that a bistro is a smallish, casual restaurant where a serious chef will make the dishes of the region (often with a blackboard listing daily specials) in a relaxed style. A brasserie, on the other hand, can be huge but it must follow certain rules. It must be open longer than a bistro, it must not stick to the food of one region and it should include the classic dishes of French brasserie cuisine (snails, a foie gras terrine, steak, duck confit etc.). A bistro can surprise you with the food on the menu. But a brasserie must be reassuringly familiar.

Michel Rostang’s fame in France (he has two Michelin stars) is based at least partly on his reputation as the king of truffles. We spend a long time discussing the black truffle of Perigord though he points out that something like two thirds of all truffles consumed in France these days come from the Rhone valley and not from Perigord.

I ask him about the myth of wild truffles. He is candid. It is rare to find wild black truffles these days. The majority are cultivated by implanting the spores into the roots of trees. But because the legend of the truffle forager has served the business so well, nobody bothers with the truth.

What does he think of the white truffles of Alba, which cannot be cultivated unlike black truffles? He has no idea, he says. They are Italian truffles. And, I persist, are the mushrooms that Italians call porcini the same as those the French call ceps? They are the same, he says. Italians come to France, buy ceps and then package them as porcini. Ah, the French and their food snobbery!

After Rostang, it’s time to meet the big man himself: Sol Kerzner. Sol made his reputation as the Sun King in the 1990s when the fame of his South African Sun chain of casinos, hotels and the odd city, spread around the world. Then, he sold many of his Sun assets and created the luxury One and Only chain.

There’s been an Atlantis in the Bahamas for years, catering to the US market but this Atlantis is grander (though it has fewer rooms than its Bahamas counterpart) and far more luxurious.

Sol has been assigned a punishing schedule of interviews but he goes through the motions like a trouper. He doesn’t even flinch when Russian TV crews ask the most banal questions. Is he proud to be of Russian origin? Was his father an officer in the Tsarist forces? Was he brought up on stories of life in the old country? How does he celebrate Christmas?

Sol is Jewish. His family escaped from Russia when he was tiny, seeking to make a new life, far from prejudice and anti-Semitism. But he is polite and dissembles marvellously for the crews.

Because I’m not doing a formal interview, we retire to a table by the beach for a cold drink. Sol has no hotels in India even though his daughter lives here: somewhere near Madras, he says, but he has forgotten exactly where. Nevertheless, India is vital to Atlantis’s success. With Europe in recession, Indians will have to fill the rooms. I tell him he needn’t worry. Indians love Dubai and his hotel seems like a winner.

Next, I’m off to meet Giorgio Locatelli, whose movie star good looks would have made him a global celebrity but who has been content to let his food do the talking for him. Unlike other top chefs who cook in London (Gordon Ramsay for instance) Giorgio does not shout and swear. His Michelin-starred kitchen at Locanda Locatelli is regarded as one of the happiest kitchens in England.

I ask him about the contrast in style. Giorgio says that Italians associate good food with good times and happiness. It is true that working in a restaurant kitchen can be a high pressure job but he thinks that it makes no sense to introduce additional tension into the kitchen.

The food at Locanda makes extensive use of Italian sausage and salami. Does he find it hard to run a kitchen in Dubai where no pork is allowed in the hotel? Well, yes and no, he says. Of course it is a drawback. But we sometimes forget that until the second half the twentieth century, Italians ate one third as much meat as the British or the French. Italian is one European cuisine where you can go vegetarian quite easily. I tell him that this may explain the popularity of Italian cuisine in India.

Then, I’m whisked off to meet Santi Santamaria, a great big man whose Barcelona restaurant has three Michelin stars and who may be the least known of Atlantis’s celebrity chefs but is the biggest star in terms of culinary credibility.

Santi speaks no English. So I ask questions in English while the perky Dimitra Georgakis of Atlantis offers French translations. Santi has been giving interviews all day but oddly enough nobody seems to have asked him about El Bulli.

Within Spanish gastronomy, there is a division between the foam-and-liquid-nitrogen brigade led by El Bulli’s Ferran Adria (often called the inventor of molecular gastronomy) and the more traditional chefs led by Santi Santamaria. Adria believes that Santi is an old-fashioned bore (or so the gossips have it) while Santi is reported to have contempt for molecular gastronomy.

When I broach the subject halfway through our chat, his manager blanches visibly but Santi is voluble. Molecular gastronomy is not real cuisine, he says. True cuisine comes from the earth, from the people, from the heart, from the terroir and from passion. Molecular gastronomy comes from the laboratory. It is cold, it is impersonal, it is not rooted in terroir, it destroys the flavours and shapes of ingredients instead of celebrating them etc. etc.

Such is his passion on the subject that I diffidently offer my own view: that this is a fad which will pass while leaving some imprint on mainstream gastronomy. To my surprise, he disagrees. No, he says, it is here to stay. More and more chefs will turn to it and they will be dismissive of traditional chefs and of everything they do.

I think he’s wrong but hey, what do I know?

Finally, Dimitra and I make our way to Seafire, the Atlantis’s steak house where Mark has two steaks ready for us. One is Atlantis beef. The other is US prime. Dimitra’s father runs a steak house in her native Montreal so she has an advantage over me and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to tell the difference between the two steaks.

Sure enough, I have no clue. Both steaks are wonderful but I cannot tell which is which. Dimitra gets it right while Mark beams. Is all the beef in his hotel of such high quality that it is at least as good as US prime?

Yes, he says proudly.

I tell him that the chefs have been praising his ingredients. Rostang told me how excellent the beef was. Santi was so astonished at the quality of the caviar (Iranian) that he asked if he could take four kilos back for his Barcelona restaurant. Not bad for a hotel in a city where nothing grows locally.

That evening Sol Kerzner hosts cocktails to celebrate the opening. This is only an appetizer, of course. The big event is on Thursday. Priyanka Chopra will be among the MCs. Kylie Minogue will perform. Oprah, Michael Jordan, Lindsay Lohan and God alone knows who else will attend.

But I will miss it. I have to be back in Delhi on Thursday because the HT Summit starts on Friday morning.

No matter. There will be other times. And other great meals.

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