Home is where the hospitality is: Everything that’s homely and comforting in England

From warm check-ins and cleanliness to quality of ingredients, here’s to everything that is homely and comforting in England

SWhat the English lack in hospitality (and any form of lavish autochthonous cuisines), they make up in other ways, like the quality of their ingredients, from freshness to provenance.

The term ‘English hospitality’ almost sounds like an oxymoron. To be honest, even if admittedly somewhat biased, the notion of true and sincere hospitality, the kind that is meted out equally to all guests and makes all invitees feel like royalty, that genre of hospitality belongs to Asia— southeast Asia, to be precise. Thailand comes first to mind, and India isn’t too far behind. So, when an Indian chains runs a full-fledged starred operation in the West, we expect the service to be above par by all measures. It can be an unfair standard to hold them to, especially given what other local brands might be dishing out in that city or region, but if the brand we are dealing with is from our motherland, we just expect the service to be top class.

During my recent stay at the Taj in London (St James’ Court at 51, Buckingham Gate), this fine level of hospitality was not only on display but ubiquitously felt in every aspect of the property. From a warm check-in, which felt homely and comforting, to cleanliness that was as chaste as inside a temple. The team managed to walk that very fine line of familiar and formal so deftly that it was heartening to engage with them at all times, be it passing through the lobby or while making an enquiry at the front desk. And what makes this eloquent praise even more authentic is the fact that I wasn’t being hosted by them and nor were they informed in any manner that I would be writing about it.

Simple things—things we do in Indian homes when we have someone come over —like offering water to guests as they arrive or checking if they have eaten well and if not, why, were all present and played out almost naturally and involuntarily. The concern they showed for me and my wife as guests was sincere and felt genuine, the kind that can’t be taught. And this is probably why although many other hotels in London play in a similar luxury bracket they fail to evoke this warmth in their folds which then reinforces my belief that hospitality, like empathy, requires a sixth sense, one that runs deeper than can be imparted through mere standard training procedures.

And then, to top it off, they have Quilon. Sriram Aylur is, for me, the foremost name in Indian culinary prowess, one who has deftly managed to bring his French flair to traditional (mostly Southern) Indian fare without compromising authenticity. His food, like his persona, is subtle but memorable. His dishes show flavour but not extravagance, his range is comprehensive and yet surgically precise. Where he does seem to have a flourish for the fanciful is when it comes to his beverages—a wine list to rival the best of (even French) fine dining eateries and a stash of rare (vintage) beers which would make many a top critique stop and notice, and admirably so, if one needs to add.

That said, what the English lack in hospitality (and any form of lavish autochthonous cuisines), they make up in other ways, like the quality of their ingredients, from freshness to provenance. What London has is basically a smorgasbord of cuisines with continental (as also colonial) influences all of which come together for something that is creative, curious and fun. Blacklock is my favourite for steaks and other meaty cravings while St John’s in Spitalfields does excellent marrow and, oddly enough, fresh-baked Madeleines.

And then, to wash it all down, I had to hit a few bars. Milroy’s, Swift, Bar Termini and Experimental Cocktail Club are among the finest cocktail venues about town and I highly recommend them all, although, not all in one evening. And for those who prefer brews over fancy drinks with hats, Cask is a rare beer bar which serves up an amazing range of international beers (including many on tap) and some great burgers to go with.

I’m back now before I set off again to the southern hemisphere. Sometimes I feel I need to be more expressively grateful to the powers that be.

(The writer is a sommelier)

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