Deepak Ohri was on one of his famous flying visits to the capital when Upper Crust caught up with him. So, was he here to look out for a property? Was he here to recruit staff for Lebua, Bangkok? Or was it some other mission entirely? Ohri has a mysterious smile, and he used it liberally during our conversation. In threesixtyoneº where we were sitting, Ohri got plenty of interested looks from the other guests, all of who have traveled to Bangkok and visited the restaurants or stayed at the Lebua. He also got furtive glances from managers who were trying to interpret that mysterious smile, to search for a trace of annoyance or satisfaction with the food and the services in Oberoi Gurgaon, the newest hotel of the chain.
Every time I have visited Bangkok in the last couple of years, local friends, who have wanted to pamper me senseless have offered to take me to the Sky Bar or Sirocco, both rooftop dining at the Lebua. On another occasion, when I was actually staying in that hotel, I had gone for a foot massage to a nearby reflexology centre. As that could be considered the golden mile for luxury hotels – besides the Lebua, there are Shangri la and Mandarin Oriental within walking distance, along with several other leading hotels – foot reflexology, massage parlours, silk shops and handicraft stores line the network of roads and lanes around the area. “Where are you staying?” asked my therapist, as a way of making small talk. “Shangri La?” “No,” I replied. “Lebua”. At that innocuous word, a remarkable transformation came over my therapist, who hurried over to a back room and returned, bearing a cold drink for me. None of the other customers were sipping cold drinks, and I guess I have to thank the sheer brand equity of the Lebua for my sudden rise in status in a foot reflexology centre!
Deepak Ohri was in no mood to let go of his Mona Lisa twitch of the lips. He wasn’t about to let on what has brought him to India. Speculations were rife. He is known to be keen on expanding to India, but what form the hotel is likely to take is, inevitably, shrouded in mystery. Will it be in Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore or somewhere else entirely? He is interested in off-beat locations – a chateau in the Loire Valley, an old British tea planter’s bungalow in Assam. Lebua already owns a boutique lodge in New Zealand’s north island near Rotorua. The flagship will remain the superb property in Silom, Bangkok, a landmark for miles and miles around, with its trademark golden dome atop 65 stories and balustraded balconies as an architectural feature of the building.
Ohri came in to the company merely to set up a restaurant atop the building. At first he had to plead with architects to design an open plan restaurant on the 51st floor, but no architect wanted to have anything to do with such a hare-brained scheme. One architect opined that it was unworkable for an open restaurant so high. I pick up my pencil. “Who is this architect?” I ask. “He must be eating crow somewhere.” In return, all I get is that maddeningly inscrutable smile.
Somewhat of a maverick, he has defied conventional wisdom. There are no dining options on ground level in Lebua: the all-day diner of the hotel is on the mezzanine floor and all the other restaurants and bars are clustered around the dome, from the 51st to the 65th floor. Not only that, the Sky Bar, at the very edge of the terrace has a clear plastic parapet with a sheer drop many hundreds of feet. It’s exhilarating, especially when you see a sheet of twinkling lights at your feet, the flare of car lights flashing and the dull sheen of the Chao Phraya River nearby.
Sirocco is on the same level as the Sky Bar, Mezza Luna that serves refined, stylized Mediterranean food takes you to a different stratosphere altogether and Breeze serves modern pan-Asian food. Distil is where you’d go if you want traditional class and caviar with a host of accompaniments in silver service. Not only is there is no conventional Thai food anywhere in the hotel, Sky Bar does not have bar stools or any kind of seating.
No matter where in the Dome you want to dine, you have to make a table reservation and even then, it’s not a foregone conclusion that you will get it. After the runaway success of the restaurants at the Dome, Ohri looks after the hotel too, though the initial plan was to bifurcate the two.
One thing’s for sure: it couldn’t be easy being Deepak Ohri. He has made Lebua into an icon in a city that bristles with luxury hotels, and been so successful at it that his life has taken on a trajectory of its own. He is a guest speaker on luxury and hospitality in universities around the world, and expectations from his next hotel, particularly any future one in India will touch the roof. How will he distinguish himself from the competition, for example? There isn’t any, is the confident reply. “India has no hotel that I consider my competition. Except perhaps this one,” he asserts, his eyes traveling to the nooks and corners of threesixtyoneº, in his trademark poker-faced way.
Ohri will certainly give his customers the experience of a lifetime once Lebua opens here. In Bangkok, when you order a coffee the first thing in the morning, room service places it on a pedestal at your door, rings the bell and departs. You pick the coffee off the pedestal and drink it in the quiet of your room, without having had to exchange pleasantries with the butler so early in the morning, when you don’t feel presentable to the world. That’s the trademark Lebua style: unobtrusive service standards, perfected after years of minute attention to detail and customer feedback.