Some great hotel restaurants go on forever – Polo Lounge at The Beverly Hills Hotel springs to mind. Other luxury hotels evoke the past by naming restaurants for times gone by (think The Langham Hotel, London, and its stylish Landau restaurant, now sensibly run by the brilliant Albert Roux organisation). At Delhi’s premier independent hotel, The Imperial, the all-day dining is called 1911. At breakfast and lunch, says the gal, it is a bustle of red-uniformed waiters and masses of ceremonial heraldry.
But just as day turns to night, so, come dusk, 1911 evolves into Nostalgia. Windows are covered with enormous blow-ups of faces of, say, Clark Gable. Most of the tables are removed and those that are left are dressed in black cloths, silver side plates to match the cutlery, and drinking glasses so high they soar. A new Steinway is coming, to do justice to the superior musical talents of a new pianist from Goa. A traditional flambé trolley is already in action, manned by waiters who now wear black, or white.
As the menu says, ‘Nostalgia – unforgettable retro evenings with a selection of all-time western delicacies. Promising you a journey back in time, we transport you to the era that epitomised grandeur, poise and style’. Starters include Scottish oak barrel-smoked salmon with traditional condiments, and Shrimp Louise with avocado and French cocktail sauce (who was Louise? from California, perhaps). And then there are soups, French onion, and, as one would expect, a Traditional lobster bisque glazed with hollandaise.
Being really retro, we have started with old-fashioned gin and tonic, Schweppes of course. We note that the butter rounds come in an old-fashioned silver beurriere, with domed top. Food dishes also come under cloches. There is even a cover over the entre-acte sorbet, not on the menu, not ordered, but brought anyway; it is basil and something, and really delicious (this is a diner who is generally resistant to anything not specifically ordered but this was yummy). More tables arrive, international tourists who love the nostalgia, with a small N, of this Preferred hotel, vintage 1931 and stronger than ever.
Main course time. The choice is predictable, with such dishes as Himalayan rainbow trout Almondine, Coq au Vin. Traditional marinated roast baby chicken with fresh baby vegetables and parsley potatoes, and Sirloin Café de Paris. There is also a separate flambé section, say Flambéed goose liver tranche with cherries and eau de vie, Lobster thermidor, or a classic Steak aux poivres. By now we have progressed on to a red wine, Les Pagodes de Cos 2001 St-Estèphe, skilfully served with the cork presented on a little silver dish. More travellers arrive, on their way through to the adjacent 1911 bar (here at The Imperial, one venue flows into another).
Across the main hall is Daniell’s Tavern, another historic dining venue with dishes celebrating the journeys of uncle and nephew travelling artists Thomas and William Daniell 1786-1793. Dishes there are classic Indian. Here they are classic international. Time, finally, for the Crèpes Suzette, arguably named for a young French girl dining with the Prince of Wales in 1865. The waiter heats butter in his pan, put in thinnest crèpes, and fresh orange juice. He heats a blend of Cointreau and Hennessy, flames it and pours it over the crèpes, which are served with home-made vanilla ice cream. Sometimes, as now, one feels that luxury hotels should stick with good old-fashioned simplicity.