The Mercedes which picks me up from the Delhi airport feels exorbitant. The bottom of my jeans is beginning to tear and the flight has crumpled my shirt. Walking into the marble lobby of the Oberoi, New Delhi, I feel typically discrepant, but the welcome I receive is warm. I think I even recognise the doorman. His smile is intimate; his greeting, familiar. I have been here before. No, I am not an impostor.
In 2016, the Oberoi said it was shutting shop for two years. It needed to refurbish. For 20 months, the tragedy of Delhi’s elite was common. The 51-year-old hotel—elegant, plush, upscale—was suddenly out of their reach too. Thankfully, on January 1, 2018, the Oberoi opened its doors again. The doormen smiled their knowing smiles, and for a brief moment, everything and everyone felt they belonged.
The Oberoi can rightly boast of patrons. Politicians and lawyers do much of their business here. Ever since it first opened in 1965, a meal in its restaurants has been an occasion and a night in its rooms, an event. If you blindfolded one of its many loyal guests, they’d perhaps still be able to find their way around. The bar, cloak rooms, the coffee shop—they’re all where they once were. Only the conspicuous fountain in the lobby is missing. “We’ve moved that to the courtyard in our banquets area,” says hotel manager Udiksha Panshikar. With almost all rooms in her property again occupied, Panshikar is busy, but she remains patient. She is too poised to look at her watch. I leisurely take another sip of my coffee.
“We didn’t want to shock our guests with things that weren’t descriptive of us. The idea was there to be a sense of continuity, but for things to have been renewed.” Panshikar’s eloquence is not practiced, and her careful sentences are not a pitch. Sitting in threesixty°, the Oberoi’s coffee shop, I feel an odd déjà vu. I had eaten here a few years ago. I can tell the restaurant’s geography has altered, but the uplift is so imperceptible, the transition so seamless, I can barely join the dots or tell the difference. “There’s so much light here now,” I offer. “That’s what makes this place seem more charming, more Lutyens, no?”
When giving the Oberoi its $100 million makeover, New York-based interior designer Adam Tihany is believed to have researched the work of Sir Edward Lutyens. The English architect’s work defines the contours of central Delhi, and by mimicking Lutyens’ preferences—oak, teak, spider web motifs—Tihany has pulled a coup of sorts. He has brought the outside closer, a little more inside.
Executive chef Rohit Gambhir is not immune to aesthetic perfection. He is a hobby photographer himself. But he does admit that all the world’s marble and chandeliers can affect our senses only temporarily. “It’s the food that will bring you back,” he says.
The spread at threesixty° is today more elaborate. Sushi chefs slice your seafood inside the restaurant. The open kitchen allows you to smell that chicken roast. According to Gambhir, “The buzz of the kitchen now effortlessly transfers itself onto tables.” Once dubbed the drawing room of Delhi, threesixty° is doing much to ensure that it soon becomes the city’s pantry too. The Oberoi, however, has other culinary surprises up its kitchen whites. The kebabs and chaat at Omya, the hotel’s new Indian restaurant, all look deceptive. The plating is hyper modern, but the recipes succeed in tasting authentic.
Gambhir almost recoils when I drop the word “fusion.” Chef Alfred Prasad, he tells me, flies in from London to sprinkle some of his Michelin goodness on the food of Omya. Andrew Wong, another Londoner with Michelin stars, has helped Oberoi’s Chinese restaurant, Baoshuan, cut newfangled jargon from its menu. Panshikar adds, “It is best when sweet and sour chicken hits the spots you once knew.”
Meals at the Oberoi invariably leave me gasping for a cigarette. Lighting one in my room, though, makes me feel more guilty than usual. An indoor purification system makes the air at this Delhi hotel cleaner to breathe. For once, I don’t like smoking in the face of concern. My room has a huge picture window. When I look out onto the Delhi Golf Club, I mistake its green cover for conscientiousness. From the side of the corridor, I know I would be able to see Humayun’s Tomb.
I have little use for my walk-in closet, but the television in my bathroom’s mirror I do distract myself with. The iPad in my room controls everything—the TV’s volume, my curtains, the lights. If I wanted to go down on my knees and pray, it would even tell me in which direction to look. In that moment, though, I have nothing to ask for.
The Oberoi’s decision to reduce its number of rooms from 283 to 220 is noble and pragmatic in its intent. Jay Rathore, vice president and general manager, tells me, “The rooms weren’t just small, they were also so outdated. I had to ask my guests to step into the bathtub to take a shower. You can’t call yourself a luxury hotel and expect compromises like that.” The hotel’s general manager for the past decade, Rathore likes seeing loyalists return. “They come back because of the people who work here. If my waiter wants to open a bottle of champagne for a guest, only because he feels like it, he is empowered to do that. When you have people that empowered, magic happens.”
At Cirrus 9, the Oberoi’s rooftop bar, I spot a union minister enjoying a quiet drink. Sitting across me at Baoshuan is a yesteryear actress of some repute. Their celebrity isn’t an imposition. The Oberoi’s egalitarianism ensures we are treated equally. Ibrahim Magdum, the front office manager, later explains this balancing act. “It’s a simple policy, sir. We treat celebrities as if they were normal guests, and we treat normal guests as if they were celebrities.” I feel I must profess. “It really is so delightful to feel known for a change.”
www.oberoihotels.com; doubles from Rs21,000.
Shreevatsa Nevatia never travels without his headphones, coloured pens and a book. He is particularly fond of cities, the Middle East, and the conversations he has along the way. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.