Monday, October 11, 2010

Review: Seasonal Tastes at the Westin Pune – an overall unremarkable experience

This blog has been mostly about posting recipes but many a times, I have thought of including a section for restaurant reviews. This has mostly been when I have been awed or highly impressed by any particular restaurants, or to write about places that are all time favourites. After spending a disappointing afternoon at the new Westin hotel in Pune, I decided to get down to it and narrate what I saw and felt. There are plenty of review sites and most of them require you to go through the tedious process of creating logins. But why go through all that when I have my own blog? Now I can only hope that the google gods smile on me and this review comes up in searches to provide people with some useful information. I personally did not find a lot of detail available on the web for this place, and I am hoping to provide a level of detail that will provide people with a better picture of what to expect.

Its been a long time since we had an opportunity to spend some good time as a family and were looking forward to going out some place nice in Pune. There seems to be a proliferation of new restaurants in Pune, most vying for the label ‘multi-cuisine’ and ready to charge you an arm and a leg for it. I also find that frugality or ‘value for money’ seems to be out of fashion, and people seem to take pride in dishing out the big bucks. That’s perfectly fine since this is a free world J
Since this was a special occasion, we wanted to go some place nice and the search narrowed down to three places – Westin, Barbecue Nation and Sen5es. The challenge was having good vegetarian choices and also Indian vegetarian choices. Barbecue nation was ruled out since none of us could bear the thought of having a hot grill on the table, and having to sweat and cook our own food. Isn’t that what we do in our own kitchen anyway? Westin was chosen over Sen5es since it had a buffet that was described in their own words as ‘lavish’ and ‘best in town’. Even taken with a pinch of salt, it seemed to provide more choice than Sen5es which has an eclectic but very limited menu. I personally love Sen5es and as this review will soon portray, it definitely turned out to be much better than the Westin.
‘Seasonal Tastes’ is the casual 24 hour café type place in the Westin that has a ‘big’ buffet. I have never had the chance to visit a Westin anywhere else, even in the US I am more partial to the Marriots or Holiday Inns or Wyndhams etc. The Westin building itself is huge and can be spotted from miles around in the area. There were elaborate security checks where even the bonnet of our car was opened, purses were scanned through an airport style scanner and there was also some body scan type thing. Men folk were frisked. All the restaurants are on the second floor, and Seasonal tastes was situated at the far end of the lobby towards the right. The décor is modern to put it simply. The place is spacious with tall windows that offer a panoramic view of the surrounding area, mostly the urban landscape of the surrounding buildings of Kalyani Nagar.
I had reserved a table and requested for a good quiet spot. But no one there seemed to have our reservation and the only reply given was ‘I am not aware of it, someone else must have taken your call’. We finally got a table with four chairs somewhere in the middle of the floor, while there were several booths facing the windows and facing a pool that were empty but not given to us because they were ‘reserved’. This was our first experience with the mis-management. As I had found earlier from some reviews and from calling the restaurant, the buffet was 900 odd rupees with taxes, coming up to 1200 approximate ( 25$ approx). There was a separate flat charge for alcoholic drinks – only wine/beer. Our server appeared and was totally untrained and unable to explain anything at all. He informed us that if we wanted soda or coffee, there was a separate non-alcoholic package for 300 rupees roughly. There was no separate menu for any other drinks, like cocktails or scotch etc., or there did not seem to be any option for ordering just one soda or one lemonade etc. After being told we would take the non-alcoholic package, the server kept asking us what beer we wanted. After a lot of time spent in trying to explain alcoholic versus non-alcoholic, we gave up and just asked for water. This was a very disappointing beginning, as we would have expected a better mannered and better trained person in a 5 star hotel. This was no different than trying to explain something to a high school kid at the McDOnalds counter.

Although the buffet promised everything under the sky, I had reconciled myself not to expect anything on the lines of a vegas style buffet, and had blotted out images of the MGM Grand or the Rio buffets from another lifetime.

The counter closest to us was the salad/sushi bar. The sushi was unremarkable. There were two kinds – veg/non-veg. The veg rolls had either carrot or cucumber in them, certainly no avocados. The Wasabi was a bit watery but easier to spoon. But hey, sushi in Pune!! Wasn’t that something?? Moving on to the salad bar, my hopes of having some crunchy romaine or baby spinach or micro greens were dashed when I saw some solitary green leaf lettuce leaves in a small bowl. There were a lot of marinated things in oil like garlic and olives etc. The olives were simple green and black olives that you get in a can, and not kalamata or any other gourmet type olive. There were a few pieces of fresh cucumber in a small bowl ( smaller than a cereal bowl) and some various marinated veggies like peppers, mushrooms etc. There was some shrimp and other meats I did not look at and I suppose there were boiled eggs somewhere. They had two kinds of gazpacho in shot glasses – tomato and pepper. Both tasted fine, but were almost room temperature. They would have tasted even better chilled. There was a mushroom pate also served in a shot glass which was creamy and earthy tasting. There was some kind of jelly like strawberry or cherry at the bottom of the glass which I did not much care for. There were some sauces in small bowls that were unlabeled but no dressings in sight. I later saw some bottles on a very high shelf – asian sesame, tahini, etc. There were 4 or 5 bottles, and none of the usual suspects like ranch, honey mustard, Italian, blue cheese etc. I drizzled something from the bottle labeled asian sesame, but it turned out to be mostly sesame oil. There was a glaring absence of plentiful raw veggies on the salad bar. There was some broccoli which was steamed but had almost turned black.
Overall the salad bar was a 2.5 out of 5, points given mostly because there Was something akin to salad, that’s all.

There was a carving station with a deli counter that advertised burgers and sandwiches made to order. None of us wanted to go there. Somewhere down the line, I ventured to the burger station and opted for a vegetable burger with No Mayo – stressed 2-3 times to not put any mayo on the burger. I was not asked for any cheese choices or any other toppings like pickles etc., nor mustard. After a long 20 minute wait, I was served something unimpressive looking. Of course the first dreaded action on my part was to lift the bun and turn it over – it was slathered with mayonnaise. The server of course appeared clueless. One young person questioned another young person and they were happily exclaiming ‘Oh **, it was no mayo’ and laughing. So is the Westin employing trainees from schools or just neglecting to care about the service they offer? After declining to wait again to try my luck, I just opted out of the burger.

There was a teeny weeny Indian section, the reason for the limited Indian food being given as this was a ‘multi-cuisine’ buffet with ‘several other’ options.
There was a mutton biryani and London style butter chicken, no use to vegetarians. There was one daal and one mixed vegetable. It is a bit surprising that a big restaurant should serve something as mundane as ‘mixed vegetable’. The image it conjures up is a bunch of leftover veggies, and in recent times, the ubiquitous packet of frozen ‘mixed vegetables’ in my freezer. There was a paneer dish described as Paneer in a rich and creamy cashew sauce. It turned out to be huge chunks of paneer floating in a white watery liquid, something like half and half. I gave it a wide berth thinking that my neighbourhood small restaurant gave me a much better version of this ‘rich cashew gravy’ ( which is more a dessert than a vegetable, and something people in Pune seem to be fond of). So Indian food was totally ruled out. This was a big disappointment for one of us who only ate Indian Veg and no Paneer. Bread such as roti or naan was served at the table. This was brought almost 20-25 minutes later by which time, the one sole vegetable and dal had been discarded. The whole Indian experience then gets 1 out of 5 from me, so unfortunate since any restaurant in India should proudly be able to cook good Indian food.
There was a big station near the entrance where a lot of South Indian chutneys were displayed along with a sign of dosa made to order. We ordered one dosa from a snooty youngster who seemed to be too good for us. There were other cooked foods in chafers which I will run through real quick.
Bowtie pasta in some creamy tomato sauce – just average with no seasoning
Baked vegetables in a béchamel type sauce – lacking salt or any other seasoning
Huge container of crispy bacon
Pan fried snapper – seemed ok according to one of us who tasted it, but had the skins on the fish
Asian fried rice – Had eggs so ruled out for me
Stir fried vegetables – some vegetables in a watery soy based sauce
Seafood panang curry – Good according to one seafood eater among us – had shrimp, squid, clams and crabs
Some asian noodles
There was a sign advertising various noodles that could be made to order – Singapore, Korean etc. I opted for a pad thai made without any fish sauce or eggs etc. This was brought to my table and turned out to be spicy and tangy and hot. I think this was the one thing I actually ate with relish.
There were 2-3 cheeses – unlabelled along with some crackers that seemed to be more ornamental.

Now we come to the dessert section. There were fifteen plus items and were arranged artistically. There were some eggless desserts. Ras Malai was the only Indian dessert but it was soft and perfect. There was some mango and blueberry mousse in small glasses – average, new York style cheese cake – unimpressive , a few shortcake/ mascarpone type cakes with fruit topping etc. There was Tiramisu which was disappointing as it seemed to be actually made with layers of dry cake, thin layers, but dry layers of what seemed like chocolate cake. There was a chocolate pudding type thing with an exotic name which was good. There was ice cream with a lot of toppings. I had hoped for fudge or caramel sauce but it was not available. The ice cream was strawberry or blueberry. The ice cream was placed on ice like on a salad bar and a lot of it had melted. Ice cream toppings were good – chocolate chips, almonds, raisins, pecans, hazel nuts, gummy worms etc.

Inspite of this pornucopia of ‘options’ I didn’t really eat anything substantial. We mostly grazed on a few fancily arranged things, and then I filled up with a huge bowl of ice cream. The whole anticipation of eating something exotic prepared by a five star trained chef was dashed, and there was not even one sumptuous thing I could enjoy, as a Vegetarian. The omnivores in our group weren’t too pleased either. Overall the whole experience was disappointing and frustrating. Average food and below average service soured the whole experience. I think I have had better food paying 7$ at Golden Corral. Some would argue that it is unfair to compare a place in Pune with a place in the US, but I think it is warranted for a place like the Westin, which is touted as internationally acclaimed. Why shouldn’t a customer expect such a place to live up to some standards? I spent the rest of the day repenting we did not goto sen5es, wistfully recalling our stellar experience over there. Although this is not a comparison between the two, I mention Sen5es since it is the other place I had contemplated.
I hope this review is helpful to anyone who is thinking of visiting the Westin hotel. It is of course written with my perspective, based on my dietary restrictions and personal expectations based on prior experiences elsewhere.

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