Now That’s What I Call Making Amends

November 14, 2011

In my last post, three weeks ago, I complained about how a top-end establishment like Taj WestEnd had not been able to do something simple like ensure that whatever they served me was gluten free.

This particular restaurant at Taj WestEnd has been our regular pick for Amit’s birthday ever since we got married in ’98. Thirteen years of unfailing patronage, even if only once a year, is quite something these days. Especially when the cost of a dinner for two has shot up from something close to 1k to something close to 5k – well ahead of inflation.

I had always considered Paradise Island – the Thai restaurant at Taj WestEnd – superlative. (It’s now called Blue Ginger, and it’s a Vietnamese restaurant.) Not only was the food exquisite, but the service was even better. In those early days, what I’d been most impressed with was the understated, subtle, discreet nature of the service. Staff were always alert, but not in your hair. Food was served at a comfortable pace and you were left alone to romance over it. You only had to look up to catch someone’s eye – but you never had to look up twice. It was one of the few places I’d ever been to, where everyone was served at the same time, and empty plates were cleared only when everyone was done. (At most high-end places, the former holds, but not the latter – clearing your plate as soon as you’ve taken what appears to be the last bite seems to be the favoured strategy.) I’ve been to many restaurants that serve good food, but very few where that is accompanied by a quiet and serene ambience and such excellent, understated service.

So last time’s experience was a disappointment at many levels. Drinks were served after the food. Salad and appetizer appeared together. The main course appeared almost before we’d swallowed the last bite of the appetizer. The server managed to drop some food on Amit’s mobile phone and didn’t even notice. Different people checked with us regarding our order. And so on. To top it off, my body complained the next day that the meal was not gluten free.

One thing hadn’t changed though – the food was still excellent.

If it had been the first time we’d been there, I might not have complained. It was just that over the years, we’d come to expect more than just excellent food – and we were still willing to pay the ridiculously high price for the whole package.

So the next day, we drafted a lengthy email to the general manager of Taj WestEnd, explaining our disappointment. I don’t think we expected anything in particular from that email – we just had to express it. I thought we’d probably get an apologetic response, at best. It was a pleasant surprise when the response was prompt and professional – promising to look into the various aspects we’d mentioned and get back to us. The following day – which happened to be a Sunday – we got a follow-up response saying that all aspects had been checked and changes would be implemented, without going so far as to admit that there was actually any wrong-doing on their part, but also without refuting anything or descending into a point-by-point response to our complaint. The tone was extremely courteous and dignified. Various people were copied on the mail. And – much to our surprise – it ended with a request that we pick a date of our convenience to go there for dinner as their guest!

At first, we were tempted to decline. We weren’t, after all, looking for a freebie – we weren’t that kind of people. But then – the email was so well crafted, so polite, sounded so much in good faith – it would have been churlish to refuse. If you complain, and a placatory effort is made, you are obliged to accept – you are obliged to give them a chance to fix things.

So we accepted.

Yesterday was the big day. The who’s who of the hotel had been warned and within five minutes of being seated (in a diametrically opposite corner of the restaurant from last time) we were surrounded by a phalanx of staff in a dazzling array of evening dress. Special note had been taken of my gluten intolerance and a customized menu had been created from scratch – I’m sure if we’d taken it to a lab, they wouldn’t have been able to detect even a hint of wheat or any other related product in it. They might have even sterilized the vessels before starting to prepare our dinner.

The food was as good as ever. The service, of course, was not in the least bit discreet – every 20-30 seconds, one of a battery of people would hover within a two-foot radius of Amit’s head, more often than not stopping to enquire about something or other. Conversation was impossible! But this time, I could understand. Everyone there was on tenterhooks – these demanding, complaining customers had to be appeased! They even went so far as to ask precisely how many minutes interval we’d like between the starter and the main course. It was a little embarrassing and a little irritating to be fawned upon in this way – but I suppose we’d invited it on ourselves, so at least this time, I’m not complaining.

They made sure we had the same drinks as last time and in the same number – though I was offered a third and Amit said his two drinks were strong enough to count as four (he could hardly walk straight by the end). This was overdoing things, of course – we’d had no complaint with the drinks in the first place. But heck – it’s their idea of hospitality, I suppose. They tried to convince me to start with a clear vegetable soup, but I’ve never been much of a soup person, so I resolutely declined that. For starters, they’d made up our minds for us – we got tiger prawns so huge they must have been fed on steroids, and a raw mango salad that was delicious, and little bits of rice-and-tofu-something that Amit loved but I didn’t find too exciting. For the main course, our options were either a red or green curry with steamed rice, or a stir-fried preparation with a fried rice. I opted for the latter, so we got a lamb preparation, a grilled fish preparation, and a fried rice with loads of fresh and crisp veggies. Apparently, they did all this without any soy sauce – quite an achievement. (They must have done some serious research on gluten intolerance – in its most severe form, even soy sauce is anathema. For me, it doesn’t cause any problem, but they don’t know that and I don’t blame them for playing it safe.)

The best part was dessert. I didn’t expect much – last time, they’d brought a small piece of cake for Amit (gratis – since it was his birthday), nothing for me. That wasn’t quite the right thing to do, but then – I can’t eat cake, so I didn’t mind that part too much. This time, of course, was different. We were served a sort of fruit salad in cream (I hadn’t said anything about lactose intolerance!). The fruit was very finely chopped and obviously exotic fruit. I’m not sure what all it had, but there was certainly that kiwi fruit in there, and none of your papaya, banana, chickoo business. The “custard” wasn’t a custard of course, but it wasn’t plain cream either – some sort of milk-based sauce. It wasn’t overly sweet and with the tangy flavor of the fruit and – I suspect – some added spices, it had a delicious and quite unexpected flavor.

On Amit’s birthday, we’d parked the kids with friends and gone in a cosy twosome. This time, we’d taken the kids along. Naturally, then, everything they’d prepared to serve us had to be served to the kids as well. The kids don’t really eat much for dinner, and certainly not between 8.30 and 10.30 p.m. – but the hotel’s investment in giant size tiger prawns had to be doubled, as also the fruit-and-cream dessert. They also presented the kids with some china-figurine-type dolls at the end. Apart from that, they took every opportunity to engage the kids in conversation (with limited success, since the kids’ bedtime is usually 8.15).

It was all more than a little overwhelming. But – wow! This kind of action on customer feedback is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. A lot of companies could learn from this. These guys took a bad customer situation and turned it right around. Now, I’d go out of my way to recommend this restaurant to anyone looking for a top-class dining experience.

And of course we will be going back there next year. After all this, how can we not?

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