The challenges of an all-purpose hotel in smaller town India were revealed to me during a recent stay at Jehan Numa Palace in Bhopal. This stately residence is best described as an undiscovered gem, voted as one of the best palace hotels in the country by the UK’s Telegraph for 2016. One hears little about it but the experience attests to this award. However, it does not circumvent the experience that can be enjoyed at this hotel. I remember working for a luxury hotel that had once been an open destination for the public. People brought their families there for the price of a small fee and picnicked in its beautiful grounds. A devastating fire burned that hotel to the ground and the ownership changed hands from the government to private. With that change came the restricted entrance policy and the bespoke experience which came at a prince’s ransom. But Jehan Numa, a 100-year-old property was once a government office, open to all. That accessibility has been maintained in its new avatar as a luxury hotel. It’s a tight balance to strike but its GM Gaurav Rege has found a way around that.
At the lobby is an al fresco cafe space that serves sandwiches and lattes, like one would find at a Barista in a mall or a Starbucks. The prices are competitive and the experience just as accessible and comfortable, lacking pretence. Park your car in the neighbouring parking lot and walk into this cafe, Cafe Chino, away from the palatial environs of the hotel and in the India of today, with young people, business associates, women out on coffee dates, chattering and enjoying the November weather. It’s a completely different clientele than what one would find at La Kuchina, the more pricey, all-cuisine restaurant, that serves up a crispy salmon and has an oil and vinegar cruet on the table to accompany the home-baked bread. Its bodega-like ambience and comforting interiors is a reminder of a European halt. Here, there is authentic Italian food not watered down or tweaked for the Indian palate, and there is also a wholesome seafood laksa.
A level above is Shah Numa, a restaurant that serves Indian, Chinese and Hyderabadi cuisine. Despite its lofty name, this is an all-purpose restaurant that offers comfort food for the tourist on a meal package. The buffet is extensive, the music is ghazal and the option to go a la carte is not a failed one. Shah Numa does not possess (thankfully) the functionality of a five-star coffee shop. In a previous column, I had mentioned the trials of introducing self-help buffets to small town fine dining India. Shah Numa gets it right on the service front, providing personalised service that is a far cry from the departure lounges that big city restaurants in luxury hotels have become.
Adjacent to this restaurant is the bar. Tattenham Bar, in the few months of its existence, has become the place to hang out at for the preppie young of Bhopal. Its electronic beats are a far cry from the ghazals next door. Did I mention the sound-proof walls? To glide from one to the other is to have the same experience as roaming around Cyber Hub, only this is all in one discreet hotel! There is a more staid bar option at the lobby level for drinkers of another vintage—acknowledging that different generations and lifestyles co-exist in rapidly changing Bhopal.
And finally my favourite little corner in the hotel, called ‘Under the Mango Tree’, quite simply because it sits under a mango tree. With its live kitchen, kebab counter and family environment, it’s a delightful little restaurant for a cheerful night out in the city. Some of the secret recipes of the family of the erstwhile Begum of Bhopal, now the owners of this hotel, are served here.
It’s quite an act of jugglery, keeping accessibility and exclusivity going together, as well as being so many different things to so many different guests. This isn’t a chain hotel, it’s one property that is special, unique and offers a human experience with a royal touch.
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad