By John Bishop
The newly opened Sebel Hotel in Lower Hutt, the city’s only up market accommodation, is a warm place.
The foyer is splashed with modern colours, bright blue, green and yellow, a colour palette which extends to the rooms and to Grazie, the Italian themed restaurant and café.
Even the carpet on each of the six floors is striking shades of blue and black channelling the nearby Hutt River which meanders slowly through the city and past the centrally located hotel.
The sixty rooms at this all apartment hotel look either west to the river and hills or east to the gardens around the library. The city’s Events Centre is close by and the two bodies work closely together.
The ambient air temperature in the hotel is warm as is the welcome by the front desk staff and in the restaurant.
I am dealt with quickly and efficiently at check in; instructions were given about how to get to the carpark which is next door but accessible only from an adjacent street.
I am in a suite – 45 sqm plus. There two per floor, one facing east the other west – which means there is a separate bedroom and a nice lounging area.
The double and twin bedrooms are 27sqm and include a double settee. All rooms have a washing machine and dryer, cook top, microwave, refrigerator, pan, pots, plates and cutlery, L’Or coffee machine and the rest of the stuff you need to self-cater.
The range of teas, two plunger teapots and two macarons on a plate in my suite was a nice touch.
The Sebel is rated at 4.5 stars and is regarded as a premium brand in the Accor stable, below their Luxury brands like Fairmont and Sofitel, but above Mid-Scale offerings from Mercure and Novotel and two steps above the Economy rated Ibis.
The Lower Hutt Sebel is also earning itself a positive reputation locally for the quality of its food and beverage offering. Friday night and Grazie is humming with family groups and couples.
Meet Ashish Dhar, Kashmiri born, who got his culinary training in Mumbai and then worked in London. In New Zealand for nearly seven years now, he loves to cook Italian, and it shows.
He’s the group executive chef for the Sarin Group, a family owned hospitality business which owns three properties in Wellington, including the Sebel, and runs another four in Auckland, Christchurch, and Queenstown.
The kitchen at the Sebel is Ashish’s pride and joy. “I wasn’t just a chef. I built the kitchen from scratch like it was my own restaurant. I worked with the designers, reviewed the plans often and got them to move this there and put something else over there,” he said pointing to various parts of the kitchen.
“It was an amazing process for me. I am now 45 years old, living in Lower Hutt with my wife and daughter, and the kitchen at the Sebel is my happy place.”
Working in the kitchen “keeps me grounded, which leads to peace of mind and that is very important to me,” Ashish says.
Ashish travels to the other Sarin properties to ensure quality and standards are being maintained. Back in Lower Hutt he often puts on the apron and works as a commie in the kitchen. Even doing the dishes is not beneath him, says the hotel’s head chef Nitin Bajaj who is from Delhi.
“Looking out from the kitchen to the dining room, I can see the chemistry good food produces. Seeing happy customers is the biggest plus for a chef. Even after years of cooking I still get goose bumps.”
“Chefing has to be from the heart, otherwise you can’t cook good food.”
Ashish certainly achieves that, and I am a hard to please customer.
In the dining room I am served samples of the best from their menu. But first my negroni arrives promptly and made properly. The first course of beef carpaccio was a delight.
A mushroom filled arancini decorated with parmesan snow in a tomato based sauce came next. Then a burrata salad refreshed the palate for duck ravioli in a wine cream sauce, one of the specialities of the house and also one of their most popular dishes.
The Italian theme continued with beef filled cannelloni, offered with a minimum of sauce, and then a slice of mushroom pizza, whose crust was a light, fluffy delight and full of taste on its own.
The menu has eight starters, six pasta dishes, five types of pizza, six grills (beef, lamb, pork and fish) and six sides. There are four desserts, all sweet and Italian, not that that is a criticism.
The wine list is carefully selected but only five of the 22 wines on offer are available by the glass.
But what is an Indian born chef doing revelling in Italian food?
“In 1999, I went to catering college in Mumbai, and the next year I am in the USA where over the next five years I am exposed to Continental styles, particularly French and Italian.
“Then it was over to London, and by 2010 I realised that I had never cooked Indian food. So back to India where I worked for a top Accor hotel in New Delhi.
He found cooking Indian food challenging. “Perfection was hard. Italian was not so hard.”
“Cooking my first Italian dish came in 1998. We had to make four types of pasta from scratch. None of us even knew what pasta was. We looked it up at the library. We made ravioli, lasagna, cannelloni, and fettucine by hand, and that meant rolling the dough out by hand – no machines just a rolling pin. It was tough on the arm muscles, but I loved it.”
So what about at home? Who does the cooking there?
Ashish confesses to having a large pantry. “I cook Korean, Italian, Indian, Thai, Japanese and sometimes I barbeque. My daughter loves lamb biryani so I cook that often to please her.”
*Hospitality Business correspondent, John Bishop is a Wellington based food and travel writer. He was hosted at the Sebel Hotel in September.