In a Nutshell:
An unforgettable, unexpected, unique, culinary experience of ‘farm to table’ thanks to Chef Rakesh Gouniyal, who served us food made from organic veggies grown in his kitchen garden!!! , a lovely stay in this small yet stunningly beautiful palace which was built as an annexe to the main Gwalior Palace, beautiful suites with most things inside it seemed to be a century old, long walks in the small campus, soaking in the history, a saree boutique in the campus run by a company that works directly with handloom weavers – they did tailor-make & weave a saree as per color combinations we chose!!!
Address & other details: Taj Usha Kiran Palace
Disclaimer: All restaurants / eateries / Hotels reviewed by YUMMRAJ were visited by YUMMRAJ himself & he has paid for the full Bill & tips also. http://www.yummraj.com
Our first hand experiences are written in normal font. The generic information that is needed to understand the context is in italics. If you are already aware of the generic information, kindly skip the italics sections. Each section of this post has headers, so that you can skip a section if that does not interest you. Here is a jist of all the sections:
· How we got to know about Taj Usha Kiran Palace
· Reaching there
· The story of Gwalior
· Our experiences at Gwalior
§ The fort
§ Saas bahu mandir
§ Light & sound show
· Our experience at Taj Usha Kiran PalaceGwalior:
3. About the property, the people & our experiences at the property
4. The stay – our suite
5. Food at Usha Kiran Palace Gwalior
How we got to know about Taj Usha Kiran Palace
Well, in 2015 January, we had done a weekend touristy trip to Gwalior. We had booked a special suite on the top floor & we had a ball of a time. However it was not due to the property that this place became special to us. It was due to two people we met during the trip – Mr. Tamal Chatterjee (head of business) & Mr. Rakesh Gouniyal (chef). Both of them had the habit of talking to guests & we struck a good chord.
We enjoyed our conversation with these two gentlemen on multiple occasions. Please read my earlier review of food at Taj Usha Kiran palace here – Silver saloon.
However, what was unusual was that Rakesh kept in touch since then. Every festival he would send us wishes, he would chat once in a while. So when we decided to do a road trip to Pashangarh, Panna forest reserve, MP, from Gurgaon, the obvious choice was to break the journey & stay back at Taj Usha Kiran Palace, Gwalior.
In my last review (2015), this is what I had written in the last line –
Did u ask if I will revisit? Of course yes. Every time am in Gwalior, wud visit to eat something else – Food made with care & passion tastes a lot better even if it does not have any exotic ingredients.
Mr Chatterjee has thereafter shifted to another Taj property. Rakesh is still around. He is the executive chef & still goes from table to table talking to guests.
The drive from Gurgaon to Gwalior has two distinct phases –
1. Delhi Agra expressway, which is among the best roads in India (but strangely with a speed limit of 70 kmph).
2. All kinds of roads with unruly traffic, no divider in long stretches, narrow highways with too many two wheelers riding in the middle of the highway, some good stretches. The MP part seemed to be much better than the UP part.
3. Onway we stopped at Shergarh kila, dholpur, to click pics.
4. Once inside Gwalior city, it was good traffic, with many one-ways – in afternoons generally most cities have low traffic.
The story of Gwalior
I will try to present a 1200 year history in few short paragraphs.
As per legend, an ascetic named Gwalipa had cured Suraj Sen, a local ruler here, from leprosy. After getting cured the king built a town & a fort atop a mountain & named it Gwalior, after the ascetic. The approx. timing of this is projected at around 800 CE.
Later this fort was ruled by the rulers of Gurjar pratihar community. In early 1200s, Iltutmish, the ruler of the slave dynasty, took control of the fort & it remained with Islamic rulers for more than 200 years. Raja Vir singh founded the Tomar dynasty in mid 1300s.
Raja Man Singh Tomar, in early 1500s, built a beautiful palace with blue stones inlaid & named it Man mandir. He was a great warrior & also a lover of music & he is famed for setting up music schools.
However in popular culture he is famous for his marriage with a spirited & brave village girl, whom Man Singh named Mrignayani. While returning from a hunting trip, the Raja saw a girl bravely fight a wild buffalo & get it under control. He was impressed even more when she saw the girl. He went to meet the family of the girl & proposed to marry her. The family was pleasantly surprised at such a proposal.
However, the girl put forward 3 conditions to the King –
1. She will not stay in purdah,
2. She will accompany the King during war & hunting,
3. She will use water only from her native village even after moving into Gwalior.
The king agreed to all this, married her & got a new mahal built for her – she never stayed in the main Man Mandir with other queens. The King also appointed the best of the musicians to train her in music & also got her trained in warfare.
Years after this, the Mughals captured the fort. At one point the Man Mandir was converted into a prison.
In 1830s, the Scindias of Maratha region got control over the fort from the almost decaying Mughal Kingdom.
The first ruler of Scindia dynasty was Ranoji Rao Scindia. He started as a slipper bearer, promoted to a trusted officer, then to a body guard to Peshwa Baji Rao & then to a ruler himself.
The Scindias allied with the British, did not cooperate with The queen of Jhansi, did not support Indians in The Sepoy Mutiny (Great revolt) of 1857 & became a part of India after independence.
Our experiences at Gwalior
Drive to the fort –
The fort is built atop a hill. The road leading to the fort is narrow. Only one vehicle can go at a time. Security personnel with walkie talkies coordinate with each other & let cars travel thru this road in one direction. So at the main entrance there is a queue of cars that wait till a security person allows to drive in.
The road is narrow & quite steep.
Cars can go to the top of the hill. There was a very well organized parking here.
The fort –
The fort complex is huge & there are many buildings in it. Most of these are in quite good shape, considering they are centuries old.
He most stunning feature of this building is the blue stone work embedded in the yellowish sandstone walls. The designs made in blue include Mythical animals with head of elephant, body of lion & hooves of a horse, tigers, birds, banana trees & much more.
The palace is stunningly beautiful as one walks in – intricately carved stone pillars, jharokhas, balconies, chhatris, Peacocks, Mythical animals, elephants, intricate jaalis & so much more.
There is also a bhulbhulaiya (maze) inside the palace – we walked in, tried our best not to get lost & came out after a real long time.
The view of the city from the top of this building & the gate behind this building was stunning – both in daytime & also at night (one can go there at night with tickets for the light & sound show only.
Saas bahu mandir
This is a set of two temples, located slightly away from the main palace campus – walkable.
The larger temple, Saas mandir is approx 1000 yrs old, similar in age to Khajuraho temples.
The intricate stone carvings are absolutely marvellous.
The bahu mandir is much smaller but the view of the city from here is just unbelievable.
Light & sound show
The light & sound show background voice was of Amitabh Bacchan. The 1200 year story of this fort was beautifully narrated, with nice music & there was constant colored light effect on the different buildings.
Two men & a lady who walked in during the show were just too loud & were insensitive to the people who were watching the show. Sans this weirdness, the experience was excellent.
Our experience at Taj Usha Kiran Palace Gwalior:
We booked our stay two months in advance thru tajhotels.com. So we got very reasonable rates (as compared to heritage palace hotels).
The entrance to the palace campus was thru a beautiful, century plus old, gate on the main road.
At the gate of the palace, we were asked about our reservation. We were let in thru the huge palatial gate after a confirmation.
As we reached a bit further, we saw a guy waving to us to stop. We did. He & another person helped us with the luggage & asked me to go & park the car at a nearby designated place. It took me a while to understand that due to COVID protocol, they had stopped valet service.
On one side of the road was a shed in which a real, century old, Phaeton (horse carriage) was displayed.
Next to it was a shop selling Chanderi sarees – they work directly with weavers & also offer to tailor-make their designs in the colors the customer wants (takes 3 months to ship it to the customer’s home). Excellent collection I would say & prices lower than that in showrooms in metro cities of India. We were very happy with the saree that we got tailormade (we paid 50% at the time of placing order & the balance before they shipped it).
After the mandatory security check, we walked thru the beautiful stone carved gate of the palace.
As soon as we crossed the gate, a person rang a traditional bell to welcome us.
Sound of flowing water was the first thing that hit us as we entered.
Water was flowing out from the mouth of a metal snake, which essentially was part of the logo of the Scindia dynasty.
As we reached the lobby (small, nice place, unlike the grand huge lobbies that we are used to seeing), we were welcomed once again & were escorted to our suite. All paperwork happened there, alongside munching on welcome drinks & snacks.
About the property, the people & our experiences at the property
The Usha Kiran palace building was built as an annexe to the main Gwalior palace – The Jai Vilas Palace (adjacent campus). Those days Usha Kiran Palace was called Nav Talav (nine tanks) palace.
Jai Vilas Palace was commissioned by Maharaja Jayaji Rao Scindia & he had appointed European Architect Sir Michael Filose to design the palace.
The Usha Kiran Place was also commissioned by the same king as a guest house. The most stunning feature of this palace is the beautiful veranda on the eastern side, with intricate filigree work on sandstone.
This palace was built to accommodate 40 (out of 100) member entourage of the Prince & Princess of Wales in 1905. The rest 60 people were accommodated in camps pitched to the south of the palace. All 100 of them would however meet for meals & social gatherings at the Usha Kiran Palace.
Later Maharaja George Jivaji Rao Scindia, Jayaji’s grandson, made Nav talav palace his official residence, preferring its quite, tree covered surroundings to the grandeur of the adjoining Jai vilas palace.
The palace has a Marryat & Scott rosewood elevator that was imported from England in 1930. The lift is still operational & a ride in it is quite an experience. Shehnai plays in the lift every time it moves.
Next to the reception office we saw an old wooden letterbox. It was installed by the Maharaj to let his employees be in touch with their family & relatives.
The Bada bar has a 120 year old Billiards board, in addition to heritage furniture & a large selection of drinks.
A bit of a walk away from the main building is a shiva temple but with no shiva statue in it. Instead the 130 year old Shiva statue is placed below a banyan tree. After the temple was built, the statue had to be moved from below the tree to the temple but then certain incidents happened in eth family. It was considered bad omen & it was decided to leave the shiva statue below the tree.
The stay – our suite
We stayed twice at this hotel in two different suites, one night each, onway to & returning from pashangarh panna
Both the suites were identical in nature.
Outside the suite there was a nice square table with chairs around it.
The door handles were classic.
The suite had two sections, separated by a set of arched pillars & curtains.
The floor had tiles with floral design.
The seating area had a nice sofa
The windows were wood & glass combination – with the top part having colored textured glass.
The bath room had an old style built up bath tub.
Furniture was mostly old, hand-made & beautiful.
Food at Usha Kiran Palace Gwalior – The silver Saloon
It is believed that Maharaja Madho Rao Scindia has his own private train & its pantry car was called the Silver saloon. This restaurant got its name from there.
Maharaj Madhav Rao Scindia III married the pricess of Nepal. So this restaurant offers food from both Marathi & Nepali cuisines.
Our memory of 2015 of the restaurant was the plush red high back chairs which stood out from the rest. This time around we found that those had been replaced with rattan back chairs with bright orange seats.
The restaurant also has outdoor & semi outdoor seating facilities. If the weather is good, this place is really cool.
What pleasantly surprised us was that Chef Rakesh has set up an almost organic vegetable garden in the backyard of the hotel. What was even more interesting is that he was actually using these vegetables to make salads, stir frys & even curries!!! Rare – in a 5 star hotel in a city in India, year 2021.
Dinner Day 1
We started the dinner with Murg Tikka Chef style. This was not the usual orangish , reddish variety with chillies over the roof. This one was subtle in flavors, super soft & juicy meat, slightly charred on the outside & just perfect seasoning. Rate it 4.5/5
We started the main course with Stir fried greens – perfect seasoning, flavors of garlic, fresh greens from the garden – as good as it cud get. Rate it 4.75/5
Yellow dal was excellent – thick, perfect seasoning, texture of daal could be felt in the mouth, optimal spicing, not excessive, no overflowing ghee. Rate it 4.5/5
Aloo sem was mind blowing good. The crunch in the sem made it great to munch on. Rate it 4.75/5
Cabbage with green peas was very good. Rate it 4/5
Marathi style chicken curry was very good. It had the typical Marathi masala flavour (quite unique as compared to most masala mixes in Indian curries). Loved it. We got yo know that chef had got the masala made in-house. Rate it 4.5/5
Puranpoli & shrikhand came as desserts – both were very good but we have surely had better puranpoli in Mumbai. Shrikhand was excellent. Rate this duo 4/5.
Dinner day 2
We started with a thick soup made from fresh vegetables plucked from the organic garden. It had mushrooms, crunchy broccolis, bell pepper, carrots, beans etc. Lemongrass & a bit of lemon added to the sour flavour & taste. An enjoyable pungent feel was felt due to ginger. The salt in the dish was perfect. The super-finely chopped green chillies created a great balance.
Refreshing after a long day & a long drive
Rate it 4.5/5
Mooli patta stir fry was made from fresh, juicy & crunchy radish (mooli) leaves from the kitchen garden. What added spice to it was juliennes of ginger & red chillies from the garden. Excellent. Rate it 4.5/5
Chana dal had the perfect texture. It had a bite, yet was soft enough when bitten. The dal had minimal oil (as compared to most commercial cooked food in India). It was great to taste. It did not have masalas in the face. Rate it 4/5
Shalgam & mutton curry was outstanding. We have had this combination of shalgam & mutton in kashmiri pandit food at Matamaal, Gurgaon. This mutton curry was totally different – it had full spices – small & large cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper etc. The lovely texture of shalgam added a twist. Absolutely loved the curry. Rate it 4.75/5
For dessert we had Doodhi halwa – Mouthful of nuts in perfect texture, Shredded Doodhi as base defined the base texture of the dish. Reduced milk & ghee gave the overarching flavour. Outstanding texture. Rate it 4.75/5
Overall rating of food at The Silver Saloon averages out to 4.4/5
This restaurant also serves breakfast. The Cold breakfast is laid out. The Hot items are made to order. We did not miss the perfectly balanced Fresh orange juice on both the days.
The kind of food we had, we loved. It was simple, as close to home style (common man’s home) as one might expect in a commercial set up. The Nepali & Marathi thali that this restaurant serves, is exactly the opposite –Royal & grand. We had it last time.
Overall – loved staying here, loved revisiting, chats with Chef, loved the food, the kitchen garden & simply soaking in the history