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Luxury dining's balancing act between safety and warmth of service

As hotels open their signature restaurants again, the focus is on improved air circulation, minimal contact and outdoor seating

The Oberoi, Mumbai, has partnered with Bureau Veritas, which specialises in testing, inspection and certification services, to validate and review its safety and hygiene measures.

A report on McKinsey.com, titled ‘How Restaurants Can Thrive in the Next Normal’ , mentions that covid-19 has not only been a devastating public health crisis, but it has been the restaurant industry’s greatest challenge to date. “However, restaurants that plan ahead to adapt and refine their restaurant model for the ‘next normal’ will be better positioned to bring sales back to pre-crisis levels,” it states. Within the Indian food and beverage sector, each segment, be it cloud kitchens, cafes, stand-alone restaurants, is responding to the pandemic differently.

The luxury dining segment, particularly in the upmarket hotels, has undergone a sea change. With consumers preferring little or no interaction, the challenge has been to maintain the warmth of service from behind masks and face shields. The restaurant design is being relooked at, with most operating at less than half of normal capacity. The outdoor spaces are now into sharp focus, and one can almost bid adieu to the conventional format of the buffet. “This has been a tough phase for hospitality at large. We thrive on high engagement with our patrons, creating various moments of truth and in warmly welcoming guests at our hotels,” says Satyajeet Krishnan, area director, north, and general manager, Taj Mahal, New Delhi. “However, IHCL has developed a detailed set of SOPs, Tajness a commitment restrengthened, on how to manage with augmented safety and hygiene protocols.”

At Machan 3.0, the team has been able to revisit the air handling units, as it is extremely conscious about air circulation,
At Machan 3.0, the team has been able to revisit the air handling units, as it is extremely conscious about air circulation,

The hotel has just relaunched its signature restaurant, Machan, as a 3.0 version. The idea has been to keep the nostalgia of the yesteryears intact while incorporating essential learnings. True to its spirit of paying an ode to the rich Indian reserves and forests of the world, one can see custom designed walls, creating scenes of the jungle, cane tree canopies, terracotta animal masks, raised platforms, and more. However, in the world that we live in today, a diner doesn’t just want beautiful environs but safe ones. “What has worked well is that it is a new restaurant and we have been able to revisit the air handling units. We are extremely conscious about air quality,” says Krishnan.

At Machan, the hotel has installed Swedish air purification systems to control PM10, PM2.5 and PM1 as per the World Health Organisation guidelines. This could be one step to mitigate the spread of microbes and to maintain indoor air quality as per the prescribed norms by ISHRAE and ASHRAE, societies of heating, refrigerating and air conditioning engineers. And just like every fine dining restaurant, in the prevailing circumstances, individual pouches of cutlery, wrapped in paper bags, make an appearance at Machan too to minimise contact. “Even before the pandemic, we had microbiologists in the hotel for testing water, food and air quality. So, that is already in place. But now there is a heightened focus on hygiene and safety,” adds Krishnan.

'Mushrooms on the Forest Floor', a signature a la carte offering at Machan
'Mushrooms on the Forest Floor', a signature a la carte offering at Machan

Instead of opting for a buffet spread, Machan offers a-la-carte offerings, with yesteryear classics such as the keema pao, Dal Machan, club sandwich and cutlets with more contemporary additions, inspired by wildlife reserves, and keeping in mind the tastes of the immunity-conscious clientele. “There is Autumn in Serra Ferra, a breakfast omelette, which draws inspiration from the mountain range in Mexico. So, you have guacamole, blue corn chips, kidney beans on the plate. In the club sandwich, we now offer green apple slaw instead of the regular coleslaw and an option of sweet potato country fries,” says Arun Sundararaj, executive chef, Taj Mahal Hotel.

In Mumbai, The Oberoi, Mumbai, has just opened its signature restaurant, Ziya, and The Eau Bar. The outdoor deck has become immensely popular with its guests . “In today’s time, space is a luxury. We are fortunate to have 5,400 sq ft of indoor and outdoor space,” says Natasha Mehta, general manager of the hotel. The tables are placed at a safe distance, and a similar spacing is followed on the deck. Guests are requested not to spend time in the walkways. “The pandemic has highlighted the need for personal space,” she adds. While earlier bar snacks used to come to the table as a sharing bowl, now they come personalised for each guest .

Sesame-encrusted lamb loin at the Fenix, The Oberoi, Mumbai
Sesame-encrusted lamb loin at the Fenix, The Oberoi, Mumbai

At Ziya, the modern Indian restaurant helmed by Chef Vineet Bhatia and spread across 3,000 sq ft , alternate tables have been left vacant. It is open only for dinner. It was originally a 72-seater but has only opened with 36-37 seats. The hotel has also partnered with Bureau Veritas, which specialises in testing, inspection and certification services, to validate and review its safety and hygiene measures. All the standards followed in each department are on the brand website for the guests to check. “These standard procedures need not take away the warmth of service. Our teams endeavour to continue to bring genuine care and concern in each of their interactions ,” explains Mehta, “So, once you enter the hotel, your car is fogged, a temperature is taken by a senior person. With restricted local transportation, it is important for us to safeguard our team members and hence they are staying in the hotel. We want to consistently deliver warm service in a safe environment.”

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