Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Taj Falaknuma - Adaa the Restaurant & their experiments with Credit Cards

HRH the Queen of Kutch has wanted to stay at the Taj Falaknuma ever since it opened. However, there were two challenges. One, it is a frightfully expensive hotel and, two, it is at least one hours drive [one way] from anything meaningful in Hyderabad. This dissuaded us. However, since we were going to Hyderabad in any event, we thought an easy way out would be to go to the Taj Falaknuma for dinner. They have a package where a tour of the Palace is included in the cost of a pre booked dinner.

A few lines on the Falaknuma Palace. This was designed by an English architect to be built for the then Prime Minister of Hyderabad. The construction of the 60 room Palace admeasuring 10 lakh [1 million] square feet on a 32 acre plot started in 1884, and needless to say, bankrupted the Prime Minister. To the rescue came the then Nizam of Hyderabad who bought the Palace and used it as a guest house. With the Nizam leaving India, and the usual internecine disputes in the family, the Palace was neglected till 2000 when the Nizam’s heir granted a 66 year lease of the Palace to the Taj. His ex-wife Princess Esra collaborated with the Taj in restoring the Palace, which has now become a full-fledged exclusive Hotel.

So once our dates were fixed, I made a call to reserve our dinner bookings. This is where the fun starts. First, getting thru to the Hotel was a challenge, for some reason it took them ages to answer the phone. Finally, I was told (i) the reservation office is open from 9 am to 6 pm so I should call during those hours and (ii) reservations can only be made 15 days in advance. This was to my mind, strange. A few emails and days later we got our confirmation and attached to the email was a “Credit Card Authorization Form” which I request you to read. I have highlighted the fun parts.

In typical Indian bureaucratic fashion, unthinkingly or probably arrogantly, I was to fill in the form and send the Taj a photocopy of the front and reverse of my credit card with the signature clearly visible (and I assume the CVV)!! No, that was not all, this photocopy was to be emailed [obviously after scanning] to several email addresses including – hold your breath – the hotel reception!         

I could not believe what I was reading. We are all repeatedly told not to give our passwords, CVV numbers and card details to anyone. Here is the Taj Mahal Hotel asking for exactly this and, to compound matters, send this on an open unsecure email i.e. the reception. I was horrified, and immediately shot of an irate email to all including the General Manager. Of course the usual meaningless explanations followed and the usual “but we ask this of everyone and everyone gives it to us” followed. I refused. Needless to say our reservation was confirmed without the card (and we were told in no uncertain terms that an exception had been made to accommodate us), the General Manager did not bother to respond at all – beneath his dignity I guess. I understand they need a guarantee in case we venal Indians do not turn up. Is this the way to do it? Surely an online payment could be requested, a payment link provided or even an RTGS/NEFT detail. A scan of a credit card???

We reached well in time for our tour. I must say the Palace is most wonderfully located at the top of a hill with the twinkling lights of Hyderabad below you. We were taken around the Palace by a staff member who did the guide duties. It is a Palace so all the megalomania surrounding its construction was spoken about – this is the largest stone, the most expensive carpet, this was made by 38 Virgins, that was made by a castrated blind Italian sculptor who was steadily going deaf and fingers falling off. You know what I mean, an abundance of hyperbole. But, the Palace is smart and beautiful. The Indian Hotels Company has, according to me, been ripped by Princess Esra in restoring the Palace. Photography is not allowed inside.

Tour done, on to dinner.

On being seated, the three of us were handed one menu. It took several requests before we got one more menu card. I had by then realized that the dolts in charge seat the entire dining room at once, immediately following the tour, and, do not have enough menu cards to go around! Madness. And surely basics in the hospitality industry. Drinks were ordered and a general consensus reached on what to order. The food is sort of Pan South Indian, part Muslim Hyderabadi and part Hindu South Indian Hyderabadi.

I am not going to describe every dish we had, the captions to the photographs below should suffice. I do not know how to put this delicately. Indian food looks really really terrible. When looking at the photographs I imagined how unpleasant life must be for a pathologist examining stool samples. Honestly, the food looks absolutely disgusting. However, it tasted fine, not great, but better than average. This disaster dish was the Scallops which were overcooked, covered with a foul “Mulgapodi” and dry. The most pathetic and pretentious was a Sorbet. This should have been tart, cold, fresh tasting and almost icy. What is ended up being was sweet, creamy and served with an oversized spoon. Come on Taj, wake up.

Jr Miss Stonethrower & HRH the Queen of Kutch

Patthar Ka Ghosh - Lamb Piccata, marinated and cooked on a stone 

Scallops with Mulgapodi - poor with a bowl of Prawns - decent

The Sorbet and the Spoon

No not a Stool Sample. Prawns in a Ghongura Leaf Curry. 

No not a Stool Sample either. Lamb Salan with Green Chilli

The Desserts

Service was pleasant, but I have come to the conclusion that in India whether you go to the Delhi Durbar for a Rs 500 per head meal or the Adaa for a Rs 5000 per head meal, our levels of plating and service do not change. A plate carried by a waiter in one hand and a fork and spoon in the other like a pair of tongs to serve your food is de riguer. Everyone does it, and simply dumps the food on your plate. I do find this quite disconcerting.

The desserts were a joke. They were neither desserts nor Petit Fours just over sweet luridly coloured confection.

The evening was pleasant. Visiting the Palace was good, the food sub-par. Sad. I cannot recommend this. Do go if someone else is treating you is all I can conclude.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Hyderabad - Golconda Fort, Charminar & Chowmahalla Palace

A two night three day weekend visit to Hyderabad was planned and undertaken.

We had an agenda. A visit and meal at the Taj Faluknama [a detailed post on that experience will follow] and some sightseeing – the Charminar, Golconda Fort and Chowmahalla Palace. We were travelling and doing “touristy” things in India after years. This was going to be fun.

One lesson rapidly learnt was that unlike in the West, you simply cannot walk on our Indian roads. We attempted to go to the iconic Necklace Road around Tank Bund but gave up. Second, Concierges simply do not have maps to give out. Third, except in Mumbai, rickshaw drivers, all over, are bastards, without exception. They charge what they like with no sense of proportion, Rs. 100 for a 2 Km ride. Fourth, no one understands what you speak. I do not speak French, German, Swedish or Italian, but that taxi driver will follow what I am saying. He can read the slip of paper on which I have written my destination. In India no driver can follow what you are saying. You may as well be speaking Spanish. Plus, you will get a long diatribe in a mix of Hindi and Telugu with lots of hand gestures, all incomprehensible. The silver lining is the Uber and Ola service. Saved the day. Thank God.

So, bottom line, tourism in India is very difficult unless you spend wads of cash in getting a Hotel car – approx. Rs. 5000/- per day for the usual 80 kms 8 hour package. If we were so bloody frustrated I cannot imagine the plight of normal foreign tourists.

First stop the Golconda Fort. A very pleasant guide latched onto us. I have no idea if what he told us was truth or fiction. Since I know no better, you will get what he told us. Some things are factual. Many of the important diamonds – Kohinoor, Hope, Regent and many others were mined in this area. The Fort was established by the kings of the Kakatiya Dynasty [which is why the ITC Hotel in Hyderabad is called Kakatiya] and finally fell into the hands of the Bahmani Sultanate. The Fort was developed hugely. A particular feature of the Fort is the excellent acoustics and the extremely breezy rooms. A clap of the hands at the main gate or the Fateh Darwaza echoes 24 times on account of the 24 diamond shapes [6 on each of the 4 sides] on the ceiling. Not only is there this echo but the clap can be heard at the Bala Hissar pavilion at the very top of the Fort, probably, a kilometer away. As you would have guessed, this was an early warning system for intruders. This was a self-contained Fort with an elaborate plumbing system.

The Carvings at the Fateh Darwaza

The diamond shapes cut into the Fateh Darwaza 

The sound goes all the way to the top

The queen’s quarters were huge and elaborate. Apparently, they were 3 storey structures, all of which have no collapsed or been destroyed. You can see the stray column clearly indicating the presence of upper floors. 

You can clearly decipher that these structures had upper floors

The Hindu Mystic/Saint Ram Dass, an employee of the ruler, much like our modern day Gurus, pilfered the ruler’s money, and was imprisoned. He wrote a bulk of the bhajans while imprisoned. A temple is made in his cell.

An abandoned Mosque

Tombs of some of the Sultans

The Bahmani Sultanate grew over the years and controlled large swathes of the Deccan Plateau. Aurangzeb started a battle and lay siege to the Fort, which as we have read ad-nauseam in Amar Chitra Kathas, was impregnable. The siege continued for years and ended when a traitor opened the gates and it was all over. Sigh! Aurangzeb promptly had everyone killed and the Fort/Palace destroyed. The Fort was neglected and looted over the following centuries by all and sundry. Today, much has been restored and the Archeological Survey of India [ASI] is in charge. It is a huge task. I must say that the Fort and its environs are quite clean, not as clean as the Victoria Memorial and its Gardens but clean enough. It is very sad that, to repeat a cliché’ we Indians are just wild, uncaring, allegedly Nationalistic but care so little for these monuments. Walls have names graffitied all over them, bottles and food packets are thrown around and not cleaned up. This is very sad.  But again, the Fort was clean by Indian tourism standards.

The Fort is built on a hillside and it takes some 360 steps to reach the top. It was a really glorious day, clear blue skies, a stiff cool breeze and bright and sunny. Great for photography. Frankly, and I say this with all sincerity, the Fort was much better than a lot of what we saw in Portugal. Plus, the visit was certainly not as back breaking and difficult or hot as most monuments in Lisbon. The Golconda Fort is well worth a visit.

From the Fort a convenient Uber ride took us to Charminar. A long serpentine queue of many unwashed masses meant that we were not going to go inside. If you buy a ticket you can climb to the top. We settled for a quick photo amid the cacophony of car horns and whistles of frustrated hapless policemen.

Photo taken, we walked to the Chowmahalla Palace. This is about 500 meters from the Charminar. The Chowmahalla Palace was the seat of the Nizams. This property is still owned by the Nizam, like the Falaknuma Palace, and is fairly well maintained. There are guards whistling and shooing people away from restricted areas. The walls are adorned with elaborate plaster carving and are really quite beautiful. Some of the private chambers were still magnificent.

I do suggest that if you have a day free in Hyderabad, you do certainly visit not only the Golconda Fort but this quite lovely, dignified and understated Chowmahalla Palace. Well worth it.

Enjoy the photos.