In a Nutshell:
Outstanding warmth of staff, efficient service & some really simple yet outstanding, western food at this Taj Mahal facing hotel, where we could see the imposing, breathtaking Taj Mahal from the lobby, our bedroom, our balcony, our bathtub & even from the pot!!
Address & other details: Amar Vilas
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 does not have even one featured / sponsored reviews. YUMMRAJ believes in going to a restaurant in anonymity, as a normal guest, experience everything & give a honest account of the same to you.
YUMMRAJ paid all the hotel stay & food expenses thru American Express card.
Well, we have been to Agra many times (lost count) but like many others, love going back. We might not have been flying over to Agra frequently had we been staying in say bangalore.
Multiple visits have also happened as it’s a quick getaway & an amazing drive from gurgaon – the Agra delhi expressway.
We had last been to Agra in December 2021 & we had placed order for a pietra dura marble table with similar concept of intricate inlay work as in Taj Mahal. The trip was planned to go to pick up the table (inspite of having the option to get it home delivered) from Mr. Abdul Zafar (+91 97583 74455), popularly known as Bobby, a descendant of the family whose members worked when the Taj Mahal was being built centuries back. They run a marble handicrafts store just outside taj mahal exit gate.
Read about the architecture & pietra dura work of the taj mahal in the last section of this post (italics).
So we thought ‘why not stay at the Oberoi Amar vilas & just soak in the property’. Oberoi amar Vilas is a 21 year old luxury property that is nearest to the Taj Mahal & has unparalleled views of this world famous monument.
We booked the stay thru American Express card concierge service – the price of the room thru concierge was not less than what it was thru make my trip. However the additional benefits were very attractive:
1. Auto upgrade to best room of the same category.
2. Early check in from as early as 10 am, if room is available.
3. Assured late check out at 4 pm.
Booking thru concierge was fun & old school – a human being (no auto assist bots) on the amex concierge number assisted in the whole process of booking.
Check in was super smooth – the lady took us to a lobby (for the signing formalities) with the view of Taj Mahal – stunning first impression.
The head of guest services informed us that we had been upgraded to the best room in the category that we had booked – king bed with balcony. He mentioned that this particular room had the largest balcony among all in the category & that it was in the center of the building, on the topmost floor.
That, he said, ensured the best view of the taj from the room.
A super warm gentleman, Amandeep, took us to our room & he showed us around the amenities, in great detail. Was great chatting with him on that day & also during a short while the next day.
As we entered our room, there was a ‘walk in wardrobe’ cum luggage storage room on the right.
A door that was front facing the main door led to the huge bath area – almost 70% the size of the bedroom.
A huge bath tub was placed right in the center, with a stunning view of the Taj Mahal.
The WC was in a niche next to the door & like I mentioned, while sitting on it, one had the luxury of a beautiful view of the Taj Mahal.
The bedroom was beautifully planned – choice of colors, bed covers , sofa & cushion fabrics, textures of embroidered fabric on the walls & more.
Furniture was all wooden, traditional look.
A glass wall with a door separated the bedroom from the balcony. Lying on the bed, we could keep looking at the Taj Mahal.
The huge Balcony had an outdoor seating set up. Great place to sit during winter days, with a view of the Taj Mahal or in summer evenings on a moonlit night.
The space in the balcony was more than enough for our hour long functional training (workout) the next morning.
In the rear part of the hotel, a Mughal style ‘char bagh’ has been laid out – a lawn /garden with everything symmetrical, with water flowing thru channels & more.
This looked very attractive from our balcony.
As we went to the char bagh later, we realized that the area is way more beautiful than what we thought while seeing it from the balcony.
The constant sound of flowing waters, chirping of birds in trees around, the symmetry in architecture, the perfectly maintained gardens , the lamps in the darkness, & most importantly the stunning pool with reflections of the arches, all came together in an attempt to recreate the Royal past.
Lobby area :
The dome in the lobby area was attracted us the most. The beautiful & massive chandelier added to the regal feel.
We got to know that artist Ghanshyam nimbarak was brought in from Rajasthan 21 years back at the time of constructing the hotel. He had made many paintings in rajasthani style, but according to the theme of Agra.
A beautiful painting by Ghanshyam Ji on a screen, is the background of the reception counters. I could not take my eyes off it for quite some time.
The opulently decorated room on the right, which is used as a meeting place, had a view of the Taj Mahal.
On the left, was the bar.
The bar has a huge painting on cloth, made by Ghanshyam Ji, with vegetable colors. It shows the Taj Mahal & it’s compound. This singing turns the background of the bar.
At the bar, we saw that there were No glasses on display. We got to know that this is as per the Theme of bar – Mughals did not like drinking in open. They Used to drink behind curtains & keep the bottles in closed compartments.
On one end of the lobby is the way to the shopping area. There were two touristy shops – one selling really good top end kashmiri handicrafts. The other was selling marble inlay work of Agra.
In general, with everyone we interacted with, we felt Huge warmth & we also felt the efficiency of service. Guests are Treated like royalty here.
Food at Oberoi Amar vilas
All guys we met at the restaurant were hand picked & outstanding. Most of them could strike a conversation & hold it. Most of them had good knowledge of the menu & about food in general. Some need more training. Not easy at all for a hotel to accomplish this. Great job done by the training team in general.
However, in my opinion, the Training team needs to emphasise on the following to all the young & enthusiastic boys:
1. Everyone does not like to eat a lot of food – concept of quality vs quantity.
2. Everyone does not like getting free samplers. E.g. We were offered chaats & other things in multiple times. In the middle of a western breakfast. It was not needed. Loved the enthusiasm though.
3. Try to understand the taste & preference of customer & offer tasting samples accordingly, in small tasting portions. We were served large portion of chaats.
4. Recommendations need to be good – after understanding the taste , not general.
5. Two contrasting dishes should not be served together if guests are sharing the food. Specially if they are enjoyed best when warm.
6. Sequence of serving dishes – less intense or subtle first, then more intense or complex flavors / robust taste.
Some boys were already very good at 1-6. Two of the boys need some more training on such soft skills
7. It’s ok not to know everything. Just say ‘I will get back to you’.
Q: ‘Where do u get the meats from? The pepperoni is good.’
A: ‘our chef personally goes to market & chooses all fresh ingredients’
Q: ‘Where do u get the potatoes from? The French fries are good.’
A: ‘our chef personally goes to market & chooses all fresh ingredients’
Really? Pepperoni is sourced from Agra local market? Potatoes are bought from Agra mandi?
I asked ‘so u mean the potatoes of the best quality, suited for the fries are grown locally’? Answer ‘yes sir’.
Checked with the chef later – he confirmed otherwise.
Lunch day 1
Breads on the table
As we waited for the lunch, we were given two in-house baked breads. Loved this one – perfectly crisp outside & soft within.
First came Amarvilas club sandwich – It had Egg, smoked chicken & bacon, with orange & honey mustard sauce. Jaw dropping good. Everything just fell in place – interplay of contrasting textures, in-house baked wheat bread, semi soft eggs, perfectly fried bacon, just the right crispness & softness & juiciness, right amount of sauces etc etc.
It turned out to be one of the best club sandwiches I have had in india, in my memory.
Rate it 4.95/5
After that wow sandwich came the Peperoni pizza with sour dough base. The base sounded interesting & turned out to be very good. It was not as thin as a thin crust maida pizza but it was not thick like a mindless bready dominoes as well.
The taste of the bread & it’s feel was very nice. The pizza was juicy in every bite due to the right amount of the right kind of cheese & good pepperoni. Absolutely loved This as well.
Rate it 4.75/5
We had booked a table for two at the Indian restaurant espahan in the property. After this fab lunch we decided to stick to western food in this trip at Oberoi – coz in my opinion,
1. not too many people can make good western slow food in india any more.
2. Of course there are many people including home chefs who do a fab job with Indian food. Infact, restaurants in 5 stars have been a disappointment on many occasions for Indian food (exceptions being speciality restaurants like Konkan cafe, dum pukht, Amaranta etc.)
Overall rating of lunch day 1 averages out to 4.85/5
Dinner day 1
At dinner time a gentleman was playing jal Tarang. Experienced this after a long time
Once again we fell in love with the Breads on the table but with great difficulty we managed to return the bread basket after choosing 2 pieces from them.
We were served Savoury cheesecake as amuse Bouchée. Well must admit that we had never ever had this dish before & were blown over. The texture of cheesecake, mild sweetness & ofcourse overall savoury and the balance of taste – all made a difference. Rate this 4.5/5
Since I was not driving, we ordered two drinks apt for Agra –
Mumtaz drink had rum, orange strips, pomegranate seeds, basil & watermelon chunks stirred together. It was very good. Rate it 4.25/5
Shah jehan drink had Vodka, orange, Tabasco & elderflower. The Tabasco Of course gave it a Hot (chilly) aftertaste. The tartness of the drink was very enjoyable. Sweet was just right. Rate this drink 4.5/5
Don’t know whether intended or not, shah Jahan drink had more punch than Mumtaz drink.
Read about queen mumtaz mahal in the second last section of this post (italics).
During the dinner, first came the Sweet onion soup. It was simply Outstanding. Absolutely loved the caramelised feel & the natural sweetness of onions, well balanced by the right amount of salt. Had such a good onion soup after a long time.
Rate it 4.75/5
The gentleman serving us suggested that we try the kakori kabab. It was surely very good. It was very smooth but I have had smoother. The flavors of spices slightly pushed back the flavors of the meat. Content of animal fat in the kababs seemed to be lower than optimal. The kababs were however Perfect to taste.
Rate it 4.25/5
Inspite of telling, the boy serving us, got the onion soup & karori kabab at the same time. The kakori kabab waited for ten minutes at least before we ate it. Am sure wud have been even more melt in the mouth without this unnecessary wait.
For main course came Lamb bamia served in a mock tagine. Once a Turkish acquaintance had told me that ‘I will take time to appreciate North Indian food because there is so much flavour of spices that the flavour of meat / seafood gets diminished. In Our food, we celebrate the flavour & texture of the ingredient’.
Well, that’s exactly what lamb bamia was like. It celebrated the flavors & texture of the ingredient . We were super impressed with the robust meaty flavors of the meat!!!
The couscous & tomato based side were excellent as well.
Rate this dish 4.75/5
For dessert we had Pineapple cake – it was very good. Chef had suggested cheesecake but this sounded more fun to us.
Rate it 4/5
Overall rating of dinner day 1 averages out to 4.44/5
A buffet had been laid out & there was a menu card for additional items that would be tailor made & served on order.
We loved the following items from the buffet;
Baked yoghurt with mango topping. Loved the daanedaar texture & the balance of taste Rate it 4.75/5
Berry yoghurt – sharp & tart. High on flavours. Rate it 4.5/5
We loved our Eggs benedict. It was just right in terms of texture & taste. Rate it 4.5/5
Shakshouka was even more interesting. Loved every bit of it – the softness of eggs, the tartness of the tomato base & just the overall feel. Rate it 4.75/5
We did not ask for, but one of the boys enthusiastically got us a Chaat. It was good but Chandni Chowk old delhi surely has better (more rustic . The ones in Chandni Chowk have a unique Kachalu & the sprinkle a black secret masala on top that makes all the magic). Rate the Chaat 3/5
Another enthusiastic kid got us freshly made hot Jalebis.
The jalebis were excellent in terms of crispiness.
Rate the Texture 4.95/5
A ‘sour’ dough wud have made the balance of taste better – from unidirectionally sweet to a sweet n sour taste. Rate the taste 3/5
Overall rating of jalebis average out to 4/5
We polished off every tiny bit of the jalebis.
At the end of breakfast we ordered French press. It was just poor
It had Super low flavor & super low body, zero fun, zero kick. The boys has added Hot Water from coffee machine – smelling of typical coffee machine burnt hot water.
Starbucks French press is much better.
Marc’s coffee is phd as compared to this coffee if this were to be in kindergarten!!!!
I think the team needs to do some serious work on coffee
Rate the coffee 1/5
Overall rating of lunch day 1 averages out to 3.78/5
Lobster bisque was served with cream cheese crostini. We were totally blown over with the bisque. The flavors of the soup were irresistible. It was less about the pieces of lobster but more about the flavors of the soup.
Rate it 4.75/5
Pan seared Hokkaido scallops, smoked eggplant, tomato relish & crisp bacon
The scallops were slightly stiffer than the ones I have always had in Boston or hongkong (fresh catch). The natural sweetness of the scallop was enjoyable.
Bacon, I thought, was interfering with the subtle sweetness & flavor of scallops. So had them separately after a bite together. Loved it
New Zealand lamb carpaccio : A-la-minute smoke green beans shallot mousse pickled artichoke pecorino
Rate it 4.5/5
Overall rating of food at Amar Vilas averages out to 4.3/5
Next time we will look forward to trying some more interesting non-Indian dishes.
The story of Mumtaz Mahal
Mumtaz Mahal is not her real name with which the famous empress was born. It was a name given by Mughal emperor shah jehan to his wife, whose real name was Arjumand Banu. Shah jehan gave her the name Mumtaz Mahal after marriage – it meant ‘the light of the Mahal.
Mumtaz was the niece of nur Jahan, the empress & wife of Mughal emperor Jahangir. Shah jehan was jahangir’s son from a different wife – Jagat gosain.
Shah Jahan was 1 year older to Mumtaz. When Mumtaz was 14 years old, they got engaged. 5 years later they got married. However in this period Shah Jehan got married to Kandahari Begum & hence Mumtaz was the second wife. Shah jehan married once again & had a third wife Akbarabadi Mahal .
Mumtaz & Shah Jehan had 14 children, including Aurangzeb, who later became the 6th Mughal emperor. Of the 14 children, only 7 lived till adulthood. Shah Jehan also had two more children from his other two wives.
Inspite of being not the only wife, it is chronicled that she was Shah jehan’s most favourite wife. Though Mumtaz was frequently pregnant, she used to travel with Shah Jehan to all places. She was very highly trusted by Shah Jehan & after coming to power, Mumtaz was given the title ‘Malaika e Jahan’. She used to take part in administrative matters. She also had signatory powers.
Mumtaz died a very painful death during child birth at the age of 38. Shah jehan lived for another 35 years. Shah jehan commissioned the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for mumtaz.
Shah Jehan ruled for many years after mumtaz’s death, till he was thrown out of power & captivated in Agra fort by his son Aurangzeb. After Shah Jehan’s death, Aurangzeb buried him next to Mumtaz Mahal . Aurangzeb, contrary to his predecessors, was not in favour of using taxpayers money for royal use. He infact used to do calligraphy & make prayer caps to pay for his personal expenses. Needless to say, he did not plan a grand mausoleum for his father.
About the architecture of Taj Mahal
There are 4 minarets around the main building. These Minarets are 2 degrees tilted outward so, ‘so that if they fall due to a calamity, they would fall outside & not in the building’ – said our excellent & enthusiastic guide, ali bhai (+91 93195 59442).
It took 22 years to build the Taj Mahal. 20000 workers worked on the project under guidance of the court architect Ustad Ahmad Lahori. The cost in today’s terms would be about 5300 crore rupees. Architecture has elements of Persian & early Mughal. The structure of the main building is similar to Humayun’s tomb in Delhi but the main difference is the use of white marble in place of red sandstone. The level of intricacy of pietra dura inlay work with semi precious stones is way way more evolved than the basic white marble inlaid on red sandstone in humayun’s tomb. The inlay at Itmad ud daulah’s tomb (mentioned in my earlier post) is somewhere in the middle stage of evolution.
In the main entrance to the Taj Mahal, there is a beautifully ‘written’ (inlaid – black on white marble), that has verses from the Quran in Arabic. The letters in the Higher panels are written in slightly larger script to reduce the skewing effect when viewed from below – so when we see from the ground, the letters look the same size.
On the lower walls of the tomb are white marble designs with realistic depictions of flowers and vines.
Traditional Islamic architecture forbids elaborate decoration of graves. Hence, the bodies of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan were put in a relatively plain tomb beneath the inner chamber with their faces turned towards Mecca. Public entry to the main tomb was stopped about 20 years back.
No one officially named the building Taj Mahal. It seems to be a local name.
The semi precious stones used in Taj Mahal were brought in from around the world. The white marble came from makrana in rajasthan.
An Orange stone named corelion shines & reflects on sunshine.
White marble does not scratch if tried with coin. Also light passes thru this marble from makrana.
Black onyx was brought in from Belgium.
We also drove around & reached the hind side of Taj Mahal- from across the river Yamuna. It’s a very interesting view.