Day one: The last time I went to Atlantis, the Dubai resort, was for its opening.
Though I left on the day of the big party which made all the headlines, I regarded the chance to meet the many top chefs who run restaurants in the hotel as the high spot of the trip.
Now I am going back with a Discovery Travel and Living crew to shoot the hotel for an episode on the new face of Asian luxury.
We leave from Delhi by Emirates. Ground handling is fine and the in-flight service is superb but the people who try and make the flight memorable are let down by the hardware. The seats in business class are so narrow that you can barely move and they are placed so close together that you are bound to bang elbows with the person next to you.
Then, the in-flight video-system is the one that British Airways used in the 1980s, with actual video cassettes rather than movies on demand (which Jet has) and screens at the back of the seat in front of you. So if the guy in the row ahead decides to recline his seat while you are watching a movie, it is just bad luck. Plus, the sound system in my seat does not work and the only movie I want to see on the main system (as distinct from the videos) jumps all over the screen.
And this is supposed to be a world class airline?
The Emirates terminal at Dubai is huge and modern. It is designed like a modern gymnasium because you have to walk so much that you are bound to lose weight by the time you sink into the comfort of your car seat.
Atlantis, several months after the opening, looks rather as I remember it except that it is now full of people. The hotel is doing an astonishing 85 per cent occupancy, unprecedented in this economic climate and during the Arab summer mainly because of clever marketing. The original idea to fill the resort with Europeans and Brits does not seem to have worked out but the lobby is full of Arab women with Birkins, Kellys and Chanel 2.55s.
Gaurav, who knows me from Delhi, is my butler and my suite is terrific with a huge bathroom complete with jacuzzi. I change to have dinner with the General Manager, Amadeo Zarzosa and my friend Ashley McBain, the Director of PR.
We meet at Ossiano, the hotel’s top restaurant. It is run by Santi Santamaria, the great Spanish chef who, with three stars, represents a rival school of thought to Ferran Adria’s tradition of pulling his food out of test-tubes. (Santi and Adria have a celebrated feud in the European press.)
Dinner is astonishing, a parade of small plates in a tasting menu that never ceases to surprise: tiny girolle mushrooms, foie gras, baked sea bass, tomato stuffed with crab, spiny lobster on saffron rice, chocolate souffle etc.
I’m now ready to shoot the next day.
Day Two: We spend most of the morning filming me wandering around the vast property (1,500 rooms, over a dozen F&B outlets etc.) before we break for lunch.
When I’d come for the opening, I’d had a long chat with Giorgio Locatelli, the Italian chef whose Locanda Locatelli in London is the one celebrity haunt with great food (two Michelin stars). Giorgio explained that he had tried to do a fun menu for his Ronda Locatelli, a more informal version of the London restaurant, tailored to Atlantis’ specifications.
One of Giorgio’s dreams was to serve a perfect pizza, thin with a taste of real tomato and a crust which was crisp without being biscuit like. He’s clearly succeeded judging by the mushroom pizza I have. Others at the table eat well too: a Cipriani-style carpaccio and light ravioli stuffed with osso bucco. Only the fried calamari does not work: the frying is all wrong and the batter is soggy.
In the afternoon, we go to the Bridge Suite, Atlantis’s top accommodation with a ridiculous rack rate of US $35,000 a night. This is where Shah Rukh Khan stayed during the opening (Robert De Niro, Kylie Minogue, Richard Branson and all the other celebrities had to make do with less) and it is huge (three massive bedrooms) with a great view of the Palm, the man-made complex on which Atlantis is located.
I interview Amadeo and ask whether he thinks the “wow-factor” of Atlantis is enough to attract guests. He says it isn’t. Finally, luxury comes down to service. It’s not all about bricks and mortar, he emphasises.
Dinner is at Michel Rostang’s Brasserie. Rostang is well-known in Paris for his two-star restaurant and his love of truffles but his family also runs many successful brasseries which serve a lighter, less fussy cuisine.
|"Because beef quality can vary so much, Atlantis has a farmer in Australia who breeds Wagyu cattle exclusively for the hotel."
Most of the food is terrific. There are Tsarkoya oysters from Britanny, a perfect steak and his own Rostang burger which is made from beef, duck, foie gras and bacon. An escargot starter is a let down however, tasting of nothing.
Day Three: Shoot in one of Atlantis’s most unique suites. If you know anything about Atlantis then you’ll know that the much hyped concept behind Atlantis is that it is the lost undersea kingdom. This finds expression in a water park which apparently, is magnificent, and in a huge fish tank packed with thousands of interesting and unusual fish (including a controversial whale shark which swims everywhere with an escort of lesser sharks and smaller fish).
Frankly, I can do without the undersea kingdom stuff (though clearly it is one reason for the hotel’s popularity) and focus on the world-class food. But I am fascinated by the fish in the tank and can stare at them forever.
There are two three-level suites at Atlantis – each with its own private elevator – where the bedrooms are at the level of the tank. That means that one entire wall is made of glass and looks into the tank.
We shoot in one of these suites, the Neptune suite, and the crew are blown away by the view. I’ve never seen anything like this outside of Atlantis. As I do my piece to camera, a shark swims up to the wall to have a look while stingrays glide around it.
Back at Locatelli for lunch. More pizza, pasta with ragu and an excellent salami platter. Then, we go off to shoot in Nobu where I am served Black Cod in Miso (the great Nobu classic) and Yellow Fin.
I’ve asked for a table at Seafire for dinner. Though Seafire is not one of Atlantis’ celebrity-chef restaurants, it has to be one of my favourites. The reason is the beef.
Because beef quality can vary so much, Atlantis has a farmer in Australia who breeds Wagyu cattle exclusively for the hotel. So all the beef at Atlantis (not just the steak) is Wagyu whether it is described as such on the menu or not.
Seafire is the steak house and we order Atlantis strip loin, marbled Kobe steak (a marbling count of eight) and a Scottish Angus to compare.
The Kobe confirms my opinion that this excellent beef is wasted when you use it for a steak. The Angus is fine. But the clear winner (at half the price of the Kobe) is the Atlantis strip loin.
Day Four: My final day in Atlantis. I try and recover from the shoot (as hard as this may be to believe, it is actually quite tiring!) and take it easy.
Lunch is at Nasimi, a sort of poolside/beach coffee shop. The Atlantis burger is brilliant (how can you go wrong with Atlantis beef?), but the potato wedges are soggy, and the confit of duck distinctly mediocre. Worse still, the manager gets the order wrong so we wait for the right dish to be brought.
Dinner at Nobu with Ashley is spectacular. There are all the Nobu hits – the Black Cod, the toro tartare, the rock shrimp tempura, new-style sashimi with jalapenos, nigiri sushi etc – with great wine (lots of Puligny Montrachet).
It amazes me how Nobu Matsuhisa, with an empire of 24 restaurants (and counting) can maintain these high standards at every one of his places.
A few hours of sleep to recover from the meal – and from Atlantis which must surely be the ultimate foodie hotel in this part of the world – and I’m off to that huge Emirates terminal.
The flight back is a nightmare. We are taken to the aircraft by bus. The bus waits in the heat of the tarmac for 20 minutes before it drives off. The plane is delayed on the ground and the food is so bad as to be laughable.
But frankly, after four days of Atlantis, who could eat airline food anyway?
Only five years ago I would have been stuck with Akasaka in Def Col. or Moti Mahal Deluxe in South Ex. Now I have amazing options to choose from.
In the pursuit of vegetarianism and vegetarian guests lies the future. And great profit.
I think that Indians have less desire to ‘belong’ than Brits do. We don’t need social approval. And this is a good thing.
And ask yourself: have I really been enjoying the taste of vodka all these years or just enjoyed the alcoholic kick it gives my cocktails?
There is a growing curiosity about modern Asian food, more young people are baking and the principles of European cuisine are finally being understood